NEWS ANALYSIS : Gains of MTA, Union Don’t Match Strike Toll on Riders : Transit: Nine-day walkout reveals powerlessness of those who rely on buses. Local businesses also suffered.
As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority put three-quarters of its buses back on the road Wednesday after a nine-day strike, sobering lessons emerged from the labor dispute.
One is that the MTA and its striking mechanics achieved painfully little compared to the agony the strike caused for half a million virtually stranded bus riders.
The strike cost the local economy $18 million, according to county analysts--twice as much as the MTA will save during the three years of the new labor contract for its 1,900 mechanics.
In addition, in the months ahead, agency officials expect to encounter uncalculated costs. For example, the combined effects of the strike and a Sept. 1 fare increase are expected to cut ridership by almost 15% this fall--and some of that loss may be permanent.
The second lesson of the strike is that Los Angeles’ mass transit riders--most of whom earn less than $15,000 a year--are a politically powerless group, especially in contrast to those of other U.S. cities.
In other mass-transit-dependent cities, where the automobile is less crucial to survival, far more people at various income levels would be affected by a transit strike--and far more political pressure would have been wielded to prevent one, or to settle it with more urgency, experts say.
By contrast, at one point in the MTA strike last week, talks adjourned for 2 1/2 days with no political outcry. And there was little public dismay when Gov. Pete Wilson refused to order a 60-day cooling-off period that would have prevented a strike or cut it short.
“Los Angeles, while it certainly depends on the transit system, it’s not like Manhattan. It’s not like Chicago, or Boston, or even Washington, D.C., which have highly developed rail systems that are well established, that people depend on,” said Jack Gilstrap, executive vice president of the American Public Transit Assn. and a former general manager of the now-defunct Southern California Rapid Transit District. “The more dependence there is on the transit system, the less likely you are to have these long and devastating strikes.”
In New York and other major cities, transportation serves a large economic swath of the population: lawyers, janitors, factory laborers and students board the subways and buses. In addition, New York state law--unlike California’s--prohibits municipal transit employees from going on strike.
The MTA’s labor unions evolved from those of the powerful railroad workers. When the private bus carriers and old trolley lines were taken over in the 1950s by a new public entity, the transit unions secured a waiver from the California Legislature that made them exempt from a ban on strikes by “essential” public employees, such as police and fire departments.
“There’s a lot more pressure on the political establishment (in New York) to make such a strike difficult,” said Jared Lebow, a spokesman for New York City Transit.
When New York transit workers broke the law and held an 11-day walkout in April, 1980, the punishment was quick and severe: Union members were docked pay for 22 days and the unions themselves were fined several million dollars.
In Southern California, where the majority of workers commute by automobile, victims of a transit strike are virtually voiceless. According to a transit agency study, 61% of Los Angeles bus riders earn less than $15,000 and only 5% make more than $50,000. Studies show that low-income people are less likely to vote.
As a result, with little public pressure to settle the MTA strike, “we faced a situation in which the agency and union both pursued their own interests at the expense of riders,” said James Moore, associate professor of urban planning and co-director of USC’s Center for Advanced Transportation Technologies.
Against that backdrop, politics began to snowball. The governor heeded the request of the MTA board not to intervene, despite a brief attack by state Treasurer Kathleen Brown, the Democratic candidate for governor. Had Wilson demanded the 60-day cooling-off period, it would have potentially postponed a transit strike until September--a time closer to the November election, and a time when a broader cross-section of bus riders might be affected: In September, hundreds of thousands of students use buses to get to school.
In July, Brown’s complaints were nothing but “a one-day story,” said Rich Lichtenstein, a political consultant and lobbyist. “The MTA bus strike will be long forgotten by the time the elections roll around. . . . When do you want the impact of a strike? From the point of . . . the gubernatorial campaign, you’d much rather have it in the quiet of the summer when it will receive much less attention than in the fall.”
The riders’ interests also paled beside internal politics on both sides of the labor dispute.
On the one side, Mike Bujosa, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, representing the mechanics, is up for reelection in November--a fact some say made it imperative that he take a tough stance. Bujosa was also under pressure to flex the union’s muscle in response to the MTA’s decision last month to cut costs by laying off 83 mechanics while negotiations were under way.
“The timing could not have been worse,” said one MTA official. Here was a union head backed into a corner: negotiating with an agency pledging not to lay off workers--even though it had just axed 83 of them.
On the MTA’s side, the agency--which had faced an operating shortfall of $175 million--has come under increasing pressure to balance its books. Toward that end, the drumbeat for subcontracting--or hiring private companies for work previously performed in-house--became louder and louder.
Hoping to resolve their differences, both sides agreed to set up a joint union-management committee that will review all controversial subcontracts. When the union wants to keep a contract in-house, it must show that its members can do the work for the same or better price than a private-sector competitor. In the cases of a dispute, the committee will step in.
The resolution to the transit strike was not about hourly wages. Yet it caused financial ripples throughout Los Angeles as a significant slice of the county’s work force found it nearly impossible to show up for work on time.
Jack Kyser, chief economist with the county’s Economic Development Corp., estimated that the strike cost the local economy $2 million a day--or a total of $18 million for the nine-day walkout. In addition to riders, the restaurant and hotel industry--as well as merchants who depend on transit-dependent customers--suffered disruptions and business losses.
“Look at the demographics of people who ride the bus. They are . . . working in industries where if they miss a day, it won’t be made up to them,” Kyser said. “There were so many different constituencies affected.”
* ECONOMIC TOLL: Area firms begin to recover from strike-related losses. D1