Political tensions began building Wednesday toward pending RTD labor talks--and a possible bus strike--with the release of a new study critically spotlighting the relatively high wages and rare benefits enjoyed by RTD bus drivers.
The report, prepared at the request of RTD critic and county Supervisor Pete Schabarum, was the first shot in what is expected to be a fierce struggle for public support in the coming months between conservatives and powerful transit unions.
A key RTD union leader immediately raised questions about the accuracy of the report. But Schabarum will use the report, his aides said, to apply pressure to the RTD board and other political leaders to seek cost-saving concessions in the negotiations this spring to renew multiyear labor contracts covering thousands of RTD bus drivers and mechanics.
Those talks are expected to be particularly difficult this year because some RTD board members appear to be in a tougher mood after being battered over the last two years by reports of alleged wasteful management, driver drug use and high employee absenteeism. In addition, RTD officials are projecting a budget deficit of more than $30 million next year.
Given the financial crunch, the pressure for change and a history of five walkouts in the last 15 years, many observers think the chances of a strike are high.
Bargaining is expected to begin in March for new work contracts to replace current agreements expiring in June.
Among the findings of the report, prepared by the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission, is that RTD bus drivers--at a top scale of $14.32 an hour--are the fourth-highest-paid in the nation and the highest among "their immediate peers." All the comparisons were made with the four largest public bus systems in the nation and with other major Southern California systems.
Also, the RTD is "one of the few operators in the nation who provides both automatic yearly wage increases and cost of living (COLA) increases based on the Consumer Price Index." The effect of the added raises has been a boost of 50 cents per hour--which would equal several million dollars annually--for mechanics and drivers over the life of the expiring three-year labor agreements, the report said.
The commission also recounted its earlier findings that contract provisions permit absenteeism rates that cost more than $20 million a year and are about 50% higher than other transit systems.
"One of the critical things (in) gaining public support is knowing what the cost items are," said Mike Lewis, Schabarum's chief deputy. Schabarum will not participate directly in the labor talks, but will use his pulpit as the 1988 chairman of the county Transportation Commission to influence the outcome, his aides said.
Earl Clark, general chairman of the 5,000-member bus drivers union, suggested that the contract comparisons were drawn to make the RTD look bad.
RTD Unions Targeted
Schabarum is out to bust the RTD unions, he said. "I think if Schabarum had his way he'd like to see the longest transit strike in the history of this state," he said.
In a politically volatile proposal, the commission report also raises the possibility of the commission developing a contingency plan to provide at least a skeletal network of replacement bus service in the event of a strike. Schabarum aides said he would push for that plan.
Clark warned that use of "scab drivers" would raise "serious problems" and possibly lead to violence.