Reversing position, leaders of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's mechanics union said Monday they would allow members to vote on the agency's contract offer on Friday.
Neil Silver, president of the mechanics union, said his board is confident the rank-and-file will turn down the deal, which has already been rejected by union leaders as inadequate. He predicted that a no vote by the membership will put pressure on the MTA to accept the mechanics' offer to go back to work if the transit agency allows a panel of arbitrators to resolve the labor dispute.
If a majority of the union's roughly 2,800 members approve the deal, countywide bus and transit service could start rolling again by Monday, offering relief to the MTA's roughly 400,000 daily riders.
The decision to allow the vote, coming shortly after union leaders disparaged the MTA's offer, is the latest in a series of parries and thrusts in a costly game of one-upmanship.
"We'll let the chips fall where they may," Silver said.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the MTA's board chairman, has blamed Silver for the 21-day walkout and said that the MTA has made its final offer.
Legally, the MTA has a number of options if the union turns down the proposal, including the hiring of replacement workers.
Yaroslavsky would not discuss those options, saying he would wait until after the vote to discuss the next move. But he insisted that the agency would not be pressured into accepting arbitration.
"They're not going to get us to go to arbitration," Yaroslavsky said. "There is no member of this board and no responsible member of our agency who believes we ought to be going to binding arbitration."
The sticking point in the negotiations has largely to do with health care. The MTA pays for a union-administered $17-million health-care fund that is nearly insolvent. The union, which uses the pool of money to buy health care for members, says the fund is struggling because of rising health-care premiums. The MTA blames mismanagement.
In the latest offer, the MTA says it will increase the monthly $1.4-million contributions made to the fund by 44% over the life of a contract that ends in 2006. The MTA is also offering a wage hike of 3% during the contract and an inflationary adjustment equal to 81 cents per hour for workers whose wages currently range from about $14 to $26 an hour.
The union's reversal on whether to allow a vote is carefully calculated. When the MTA broke off negotiations Oct. 27 and mailed its contract deal directly to mechanics, Silver and his board voted Thursday against allowing a vote, arguing that the offer was not good enough.
Instead, the union attempted to gain the upper hand by offering to go back to work if the MTA agreed to submit to binding arbitration.
The MTA quickly rejected that, and by Saturday, Silver was reconsidering.
At a lunchtime meeting with top union leadership at the mechanics' downtown headquarters, Silver told other union leaders that he had changed his mind. "I said, 'The MTA is screaming at us and yelling at us that we have got to take this to the members,' " recalled Silver. "We had all heard from our members that the MTA offer is not acceptable, besides a few people here or there. So I said, 'Let's do it.' Now the MTA will have nothing to complain about."
Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Center for Labor Research and Education, said a rejection of the contract by the union would put the MTA in a tough spot.
"The MTA is saying the union leadership is getting in the way and that they should take the latest offer to a vote; that is their leverage," Wong said. "In the event they vote it down, it is going to absolutely put the pressure on the MTA to reconsider arbitration."
Among about two dozen union mechanics on the picket line at a bus yard downtown on Monday, the MTA proposal was a major topic of discussion. For the most part, strikers there were skeptical of the transportation agency's motives. Nearly everyone expressed concern about a part of the proposal that freezes health-care payments to retirees.
Many union members said the MTA offer would be rejected.
"The contract is going to get voted down," said mechanic James Shirley. "That's not to say people love Neil or they support his decisions, but we are not going to take steps backward. We are not going to put ourselves in the hole, and that's what the MTA is doing."
Others said they would reject it out of hand, without looking at the deal -- an indication of the lack of trust among many MTA workers for the transit agency's leadership.
"I would reject it," said Mack Evans, a mechanic with 36 years on the job. "I didn't even read the letter they sent me. I just threw it in the trash."
But some strikers said they or their friends were beginning to feel the financial strains that come from being off the job for several weeks.
"A lot of people are just stressing about this," said Kimeo Burris, a service attendant with five years on the job. "They really want to go back to work.... There is a lot of tension."
Labor experts had varying opinions on the mechanics union's latest moves.
Chris Cameron, a labor expert and professor at Los Angeles' Southwestern University School of Law, said the decision could be seen as a signal the union's position is weakening and that a move to let the membership decide their own fate is "an attempt to save some face."
But more likely, said Cameron, the strategy is a way to take the heat off Silver, whom the MTA has demonized as the primary obstacle to a deal.
"The union thinks it is going to rub the MTA's nose in it with this vote," Cameron said. "It is like the 14th round of a title fight, and we will see if either side had anything left and if we need another round to settle it."
Other experts thought the cycle of moves and countermoves is based on new assessments of how the strike is playing out among membership and management.
"What could be happening is that people are learning as they go along," said Peter Cappelli, a business professor and labor specialist at the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School.
"The union is ... coming up with strategies based on what they are hearing members are thinking," Cappelli said. "I'm sure they have a feel for how this is going to unfold," he added.
Silver met Monday with Los Angeles County AFL-CIO chief Miguel Contreras to discuss the vote. On his way out of the labor organization's offices near MacArthur Park, Silver and a colleague ran into state Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson (D-Culver City) and Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles).
"Hey," Wesson said to Silver, "we were just discussing your situation with Miguel.... We're with you, man."
Nunez said that legislators sympathetic to the union were considering pressuring the MTA to go back to the bargaining table. One possible tactic would be to submit a bill that would require the transportation agency to make sure that its employees' health-care funds always have money in reserve. Another possibility, he said, would be to order an audit of the MTA's finances.
However, Nunez also said that the broader national politics of transportation funding might prevent legislators from being too heavy-handed in their intervention: The worse the MTA looks from Washington, D.C., the less likely the agency is to receive funding for important projects from Congress and the Bush administration.