Escalating an already contentious dispute between some Los Angeles bus riders and the agency entrusted with serving them, dozens of demonstrators Thursday took their message to the streets and vowed to hold a fare strike next month.
The Bus Riders Union staged two rallies against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, one at Martin Luther King Jr. and Crenshaw boulevards and another at Vermont and Vernon avenues.
The protesters, estimated at no more than 50, slapped MTA buses with yellow caution tape and stickers that read “No Seat, No Fare.”
Two demonstrators, a woman and a man, were arrested on suspicion of vandalism and a third person was cited for interfering with traffic.
Los Angeles Police Sgt. Lewis C. Wiggins II said wrapping the buses in tape and putting stickers on them “was blatant irreverence for the law” and would not be tolerated.
As many as six police units responded to the scene at one point.
The protesters, who say the quality of bus service is poor and buses are overcrowded, called for a fare strike by riders to begin Aug. 11.
They chanted “Hey, hey, MTA. The bus is overcrowded, we won’t pay.”
Some of the demonstrators boarded buses and distributed fliers calling for the strike. The leaflets, in English and Spanish, told the riders, “If the bus is crowded, don’t pay your fare!”
Some bus drivers avoided the stops near the intersections because of the protesters.
Thursday’s demonstration marked the most aggressive action yet by the riders union, which is embroiled in a battle with the MTA over the state of the agency’s bus system.
Last month, the group, which claims about 2,000 members, staged protests in the downtown garment district and in East Los Angeles.
Four years ago, the union and the NAACP filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the MTA alleging that the sharp differences in funding between rail service and bus service in the county constituted separate and unequal mass transit systems.
Faced with the lawsuit, the agency agreed to a federal consent decree that set specific goals for reducing overcrowding and improving the county transportation agency’s bus service.
However, Eric Mann, the union’s leader, said members are frustrated by what he called the MTA’s failure to comply with the requirements. The consent decree ordered the agency to reduce crowding in the buses by late last year, with no more than 15 passengers standing in the buses during peak hours.
The MTA contends that it is endeavoring to meet the federal court’s requirements. Part of the problem is the two sides have conflicting data and cannot agree on methods to calculate the number of standing riders to determine if the requirement is being met.
The issue is being argued before a special master, Donald T. Bliss, appointed by U.S. District Judge Terry J. Hatter Jr.
Last week, Bliss directed the two sides to file legal briefs with him in the coming weeks. The deadline for the union is Aug. 14 and Aug. 21 for the MTA.
MTA spokesman Gary Wosk said the agency considers the threat of a fare strike to be “counterproductive” when it has an ongoing dialogue with the Bus Riders Union.
“We believe we have made a lot of headway,” Wosk said.
If the fare strike occurs, he said, it will be an inconvenience to other riders because the refusal to pay may cause delays on bus lines.
Times staff writer Daniel Yi contributed to this story.