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Transit Unions, MTA’s Cost Cutters Face Tough Talks

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Los Angeles transit unions are heading for a confrontation with cost cutters at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority--and the resulting tensions could ripple right into next summer’s Democratic National Convention.

Responding to a new study showing that the MTA spends 7% more on hourly bus operations than transit agencies in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago, the agency’s financial managers said they hope to bring costs down by winning concessions from unions on such things as work rules and overtime pay, workers’ compensation benefits, and contracting with private firms for work now performed by public employees.

“Union negotiations will be instrumental for developing a partnership between management and labor in order to reduce the MTA’s hourly bus operating cost,” wrote Thomas K. Conner, chief of the MTA’s transit operations, in a report to the agency’s board that was also signed by Richard Brumbaugh, the MTA’s chief financial officer, and Allan G. Lipsky, who works with Chief Executive Julian Burke.

After a hearing at which Conner and others outlined a general plan of cost cutting that included reduced overtime, Goldy Norton, an official with the bus drivers’ United Transportation Union, the MTA’s largest, said:

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“They want that; whether they get it is another matter.”

Norton said a strike during the convention “is something we certainly hope doesn’t happen,” but added, “there is no guarantee that anything could or won’t happen.”

The MTA’s current labor contracts expire June 30, six weeks before the Aug. 14 start of the convention.

A long history of contentious negotiations between the MTA and its unions shows that transit strikes sometimes spill into July and August, even beyond.

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There have been eight transit strikes since 1960, including a 68-day strike in 1974 that began in August and ended in October, and a nine-day walkout in 1994 that dragged into early August.

The current three-year contract came together in 1997 during the second week of July, virtually on the eve of a strike. At the time, Gov. Pete Wilson considered ordering a cooling off period that would have extended that year’s tense negotiations into September.

So far, MTA board members, several of whom worked to bring the convention to Los Angeles, say they believe potential labor problems will be solved long before Democrats convene in mid-August to pick their presidential nominee.

Preliminary talks have already begun, including some conversation about the need to avoid any spillover that would affect the convention, which is seen as a huge economic stimulus to the region, generating $150 million to $190 million in direct revenue.

The MTA hopes the convention will provide a national showcase for the Metro Red Line subway, and is pushing for completion of Phase 3 construction of the subway, hoping all the work will be completed in Hollywood and the line will be extended at least to Universal City by mid-2000.

Local organizers hope the precedent for the convention was set during the 1984 Olympics, when buses, cars and people moved smoothly to and from various sports venues, hotels and attractions, helped by immense cooperation from private employers and public agencies.

The last thing they want, MTA officials say, is for transit labor unrest to affect the expected 5,000 delegates and alternates, plus their families and friends, who will be in town for the convention.

“The unions are as interested as we are in putting this behind us by the time the convention comes around,” said county Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, head of the MTA board of directors.

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“Everyone has an interest in this convention coming off well,” said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also sits on the MTA board. “I don’t think anybody’s interest would be advanced by blowing up the convention in August.”

The potential intersection of protracted labor negotiations and the convention presents a highly combustible set of problems to MTA board members, particularly those close to the convention, because of their mandate to rein in the costs of bus operations.

Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, who played a prominent role in bringing the convention to Los Angeles, also sits on the MTA board, as does county Supervisor Gloria Molina, a vice chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee.

Though it would seem that the looming presence of the convention gives unions leverage in their negotiations with MTA managers, the 2000 negotiations come at a time when the workers face a significant amount of outside pressure because of cost comparisons with other bus operators.

A new study by Altmayer Consulting of Pasadena compared the hourly costs of running an MTA bus with those of transit operators in other large metropolitan areas and found that costs in Los Angeles were 7% higher than in comparable cities during the 1998 budget year.

The analysts figured that salaries and wages, fringe benefits and supplies cost the MTA $61.47 an hour, compared with $52.54 for the other agencies. The $8.93 difference represents “a $53-million problem” each year, Conner told board members during a hearing.

MTA bus driver pay during 1998 amounted to $27.11 an hour, counting benefits, compared with $25.89 for the other agencies.

The issue of comparisons is particularly important now because the MTA is in talks that could lead to a breakup of the current massive bus system into three large zones--greater Los Angeles, the San Fernando Valley and the San Gabriel Valley. Private bus lines are pushing for MTA business, saying they can operate a bus for about $60 an hour, and they have found some receptive ears on the 13-member MTA board.

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Faced with the competition, the transit agency’s financial managers say they hope to bring hourly costs down significantly by the 2001 budget year.

Given the competition for MTA bus service in the San Gabriel and San Fernando valleys, Supervisor Burke said unions should be just as motivated as convention organizers to make labor peace, even if that means making some concessions.

“It costs more for us to operate than other municipal bus lines,” she said. “If the hourly cost remains high, it is going to be very difficult for us to defeat the moves underway to break us up into zones. We are going to have to be competitive.”

Norton said reducing overtime costs would mean revising work rules that the unions fought hard to put into current contracts.

“Work rules have always been very important to the UTU . . . very, very important,” he said.


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