Boston transit system hits latest in series of potholes; Federal court action, work slowdowns, and now 'suspicious' fires beset MBTA as labor, management battle for control

Just as the people of Greater Boston were wondering how the problems afflicting their mass-transit system could -become any worse, they apparently have.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), the oldest mass-transit system in the United States and the most expensive to ride, is beset with declining revenues and ridership, crumbling tunnels, allegations of corruption in high places, and most recently, a work slowdown by disgruntled unionized employees.

Along with the financially ailing Chicago Transit Authority, and one or two others in major US cities, the MBTA often is cited as a prime example of all that is wrong with urban mass transportation in this country.

Now the ''T,'' as it is commonly known here, seems to have become the target of saboteurs.

Tens of thousands of regular MBTA riders awoke on a dark and rainy Oct. 26 to the news that the system's subways would be out of commission at least for the morning rush hour because of a 4:30 a.m. fire that had swept through the ground floor of its operations center, doing an estimated $1.5 million in damage. The affected areas not only held vital computerized control equipment but also filing cabinets containing personnel records. Such records have been at the center of an investigation into questionable workmen's compensation claims by some ''T'' employees.

State, fire department, and MBTA officials quickly labeled the fire as the work of arsonists, and Gov. Edward J. King (D) offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those responsible. State police guards were stationed at other crucial MBTA facilities after the fire. It was the second time in two months that the ''T'' has been hit by fires of suspicious origin. An earlier blaze destroyed an estimated $1 million worth of electrical equipment at a newly renovated subway station.

Many of the MBTA's problems are attributed to its dispute with the powerful Boston Carmen's Union (a local of the Amalgamated Transit Union), whose 3,700 members have been staging a ''work to rule'' action for nearly a week to protest a planned reduction in the number of guards assigned to subway trains and the assignment of overtime on any basis other than seniority.

Union employees, who are paid an average of $23,000 a year, have refused to move overloaded trains or bend safety rules in order to meet timetables. Delays of half an hour or more have been reported at certain times of day since the slowdown began.

But carmen's union president John (Jack) Gallahue heatedly denied his membership had any involvement in the fire.

''Any insinuation that there is any connection between the fire and the carmen's union is irresponsible,'' he said. ''The union would not condone any type of violence or vandalism against the MBTA.''

The MBTA management recently won a major victory when a US Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a 1980 state law giving the system broad management powers, including the right to set productivity standards and assign overtime on a merit basis. Late last week the carmen's union sought a restraining order against implementation of the management rights but was rebuffed. A spokesman for the system said, meanwhile, that measures to implement some of the newly won rights would be announced this week.

MBTA General Manager James O'Leary has said that any employee whose performance was not consistent with his responsibilities would be disciplined. That discipline could include dismissal, he said.

Following the Oct. 26 fire, Governor King told reporters: ''Disruptions in service are in no one's interest. We're going to eliminate anyone who participates in it.''

Despite the legal setbacks and MBTA management's tough line, however, the carmen's union may still wield the balance of power in the lengthy dispute. The carmen were particularly vocal in endorsing King's candidacy in 1978 and are widely believed to enjoy a special relationship with him. King, who won the governorship by only 104,000 votes out of more than 2 million cast in this overwhelmingly Democratic state, faces a tough reelection fight next year and can ill afford to further alienate any segment of organized labor.

Already he is unpopular with some in the union movement because of his refusal to fund $30 million in collective bargaining agreements won by state employees. At an appearance before the statewide convention of the AFL-CIO earlier this month he was given only a polite reception.

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