Bus Stop

Zev Yaroslavsky is chairman of the MTA board of directors and a member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors representing the 3rd District.

On Friday, striking MTA mechanics offered to abide by binding arbitration on their contract impasse. The MTA board rejected the offer, saying it was disingenuous. It's unclear, now, when the strike that has crippled mass transit in the county will end. We asked each side to explain its position.

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For the 10th time in four decades, Metropolitan Transportation Authority employees have gone out on strike -- not only against the region's largest transit agency but also against the 500,000 people who rely on bus and rail service for essential transportation.

It's become a pattern. Since 1960, MTA's transit employees have chosen more often than not to strike at contract time in hopes of winning richer terms. The strikes have lasted from five to 68 days, and each time have crippled the region's commuters and compromised the MTA's financial stability.

The issues vary from strike to strike, but two things remain constant: the delay and inconvenience to motorists stuck on congested streets and the misery and economic hardship visited on the mostly low-income transit riders who suddenly find themselves unable to attend school, report for work, shop at for food or even see a doctor. Unlike shoppers caught up in the clerks' strike against the supermarket chains, who can shop other places, many MTA customers simply have no alternative way to get where they need to go.

This year's MTA mechanics strike is not justified by any measure. Members of the MTA's board of directors, a number of whom have stood proudly with organized labor in past causes, made a generous offer to the mechanics in the months leading up to the strike. Now we must hold the line.

MTA employees are not marginal or exploited workers -- indeed, over time they have secured some of the best wages and benefits of any workers inside or outside the transit industry. Consider the following:

* MTA mechanics make excellent salaries. Salaries average more than $50,000 per year, and with overtime some mechanics earn more than $100,000 annually. Where most public employees contribute up to 10% of their salary to their retirement plans, MTA mechanics pay only 2.5%, increasing their take-home pay while the MTA picks up the rest of their pension contributions.

* MTA mechanics pay nothing for health insurance. Most people lucky enough to have health coverage through their work must still pay a portion of the insurance premiums -- sometimes as much as hundreds of dollars per month. MTA mechanics have had their health insurance heavily subsidized. Currently, they pay nothing for personal coverage and only $6 per month to cover their families. In today's economic climate and with insurance costs soaring, the MTA can no longer afford to pick up so much of the tab. The agency is now asking its mechanics to pay up to $70 per month for family coverage, which still represents only a fraction of what most people pay for similar coverage. This does not mean the MTA is cutting its contribution to health care for its mechanics: It is proposing to substantially increase contributions. It is simply asking employees to pick up a small portion of the rapidly increasing price of insurance.

* Mechanics can retire with a full pension after only 23 years of work. One of the most generous benefits given to MTA employees is the "23 and out" provision, which allows an employee who begins work at age 20 to retire at age 43 with a full pension. These retired MTA veterans can then start a second career with the MTA or elsewhere while drawing a full pension, some for longer than they ever worked at the agency. Even firefighters and police officers don't get such a sweet deal.

Despite extraordinarily tough economic times for local governments, the MTA has offered its mechanics a three-year contract that is more than fair. The MTA has put on the table more than has virtually any other public agency in California at a time of unprecedented financial strain. The board's offer includes:

* Increased wages. The MTA has proposed a 5% pay increase over three years. In addition, mechanics would continue to receive a quarterly wage adjustment to help keep pace with inflation.

* A bailout of the union trust fund. The MTA does not purchase health coverage directly for its employees like most other employers. Instead, it gives the money to union trust funds, which in turn provide members' health benefits. In recent years, the mechanics' trust fund has run up a significant shortfall. An independent audit found that the fund could be better managed, and it raised questions about the transfer of funds from the health trust to the union's operating budget. The MTA has offered a one-time infusion of $4.7 million to close the gap, but in return is insisting on sharing responsibility with the union for the fund's administration in order to ensure its proper management.

* Increased funding for health benefits. To help maintain quality health care for its mechanics, the MTA is proposing to boost its contribution to the health benefit trust fund by nearly 50% over three years. If properly managed, the fund should have more than enough money to permit an employee to cover his or her family for $70 per month, far less than most people pay.

* Continued support at current levels for retiree health benefits. Prior to 1991, retirees not yet 65 received only 25% of what an active employee received in health-care contributions from the MTA. Retirees over 65 received nothing. Today, the MTA makes substantial contributions for all retirees. The board is not proposing to take anything away from these former workers; on the contrary, it has offered to maintain their health contributions at current levels for the term of the contract.

The mechanics union has now rejected four MTA offers without even submitting them to a vote of the members, electing instead to strike. At some point, any responsible public agency has to say, "Enough is enough." That's what the MTA board has now done. After a year and half of fruitless bargaining and now a three-week strike, the board concluded that the time has come to change the dynamic of this dispute.

That is why the MTA board of directors last week unanimously declared contract talks with the mechanics at an impasse and sent its best and final offer directly to the union's members. The mechanics' last-ditch plea on Friday for binding arbitration may sound reasonable, but it's disingenuous: They're trying to make the MTA's final offer their starting point and negotiate up from there. No responsible public agency, especially in these tough economic times, would surrender fiscal control to some faraway, unaccountable third-party decision-maker.

The board is resolved to break out of a damaging cycle in which, each time a contract comes up, the union strikes -- and the board, under pressure, agrees to more than it can afford. The board has said plainly that there will be no more money to enrich the offer. Anything more would force the MTA to either raise fares for a second time in two years, cut services or both. These are not options.

Los Angeles bus riders and commuters have suffered enough. MTA employees have lost nearly $3,000 apiece in pay since the strike began -- losses they will never recoup. No one wins in a strike: There are only losers. The sooner all parties realize this, the sooner the buses will roll.

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