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MTA’s Legislative Agenda Reflects New Priorities

Interview with Art MacEwan, member, MTA Government Relations Committee, conducted by newsletter editor Jennifer C. Berkshire

Spring 15


You’re on the MTA’s Government Relations Committee, which is emphasizing a new, more grassroots-driven approach to the union’s legislative work. Fill us in on the background.


The change reflects what I’d describe as a real desire to get the membership more engaged in the union’s activities. While I think that the MTA has been quite democratic, it’s very hard to make the democratic processes work with 100,000 people. There’s a lot of inertia and a real bias towards getting things done, which means you do them at the top. I don’t see it as a corruption of democracy but as a kind of pressure that wasn’t fought against hard enough. The new president of the MTA, Barbara Madeloni is very intent on changing that. In the past, the legislative agenda was very much guided from the top. It didn’t fully engage members as much as it might have.


Does that mean that members have had more of an opportunity to shape the union’s legislative priorities than perhaps they did in the past?


We sent out a call to the membership to ask them: what should the legislative agenda be? We got something like 150 responses, some of which were off the wall. For example, one said we really need to do something about people talking on their cell phones while driving. We also got a lot of concentration on a few important issues. Some we couldn’t do anything about, like Social Security provisions. Members were also invited to attend a meeting where they could share suggestions, and individual committee members also held meetings with their constituents. It’s my impression that there was much more emphasis on engagement and the soliciting ideas than in the past.


Let’s talk specifics. What sorts of issues made it onto this year’s agenda?


There are three categories: the schools our children deserve, amplifying and protecting teacher voice, and the wellbeing of our communities—the idea being that education takes place in a context, which is why we’re pushing the living wage and the indexing of people’s pensions.


It sounds great, but how do you realize an ambitious agenda like that at a time when teachers unions seem to be under assault from all sides? In other words, is this a dream agenda or something that could actually be realized?


There was an issue that kept coming up, which was the extent to which we should focus on the practical vs. the extent to which we should focus on what we want. The two aren’t always the same and that causes tension. I think that there was a strong influence of the argument that it’s important for us to use the legislative process to lay out what we want. Practical is good—you’ve got to get what you can. But it’s important and desirable to try to push beyond that. I think that in the end we came up with a good combination of both. The living wage bill, for example, really impressed me. There were all sorts of things in the living wage bill that I would never have thought of: a $15 an hour wage that would cover state employees, contract employees and would be indexed, not just to inflation, but to other rising living costs.


Do you see the legislative agenda as part of larger changes that are in the works?


I think things are changing but that change is slow. There are two measures of success. Getting bills passed and engagement. The goal here is to try to transform the MTA into more of a grassroots lobbying force. The MTA has followed a practice in the past of emphasizing lobbying by professionals vs. the membership. I think that the progress on this isn’t going to be “tomorrow you’re going to see masses of people down at the statehouse,” but there can definitely be some step-by-step changes in engagement. Of course, we face some big political hurdles. Everything that Governor Baker says, he reiterates “no new taxes” pledge. Many of the things we’re calling for cost money. Most progressive legislation costs money. ▪


Art MacEwan is Professor Emeritus of Economics at UMass Boston and a former president of the FSU.