Mechanics Vote Down MTA's Offer

Times Staff Writers

Striking transit mechanics voted soundly Friday to reject the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's "last, best and final" contract offer, leaving the standoff without an immediate resolution and with the next steps uncertain.

The vote came hours after a judicial ruling Friday that will allow Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and three other powerful politicians to rejoin negotiations, a decision hailed by both sides in the nearly 4-week-old strike.

Ninety-three percent of the 1,358 active and retired mechanics who voted on the MTA's offer turned it down. Neil Silver, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, said the overwhelming rejection should force the MTA to alter its hard-line stance.

"This contract went down in a resounding no," Silver said. "Perhaps the message will get back to the MTA to get back to the negotiating table. We are not going to take this draconian offer.

"It is time to end the games and get back to work."

MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble said he was disappointed by the results but stood firm on the contract offer.

"The MTA will hold the line," he said in a statement. "There are no additional funds to be put on the table. Further concessions would result in service cuts, fare increases and job losses."

The strike began Oct. 14, effectively shutting down the nation's third-largest transit system and stranding about 400,000 daily bus and train riders. MTA drivers and clerks have stayed off the job in support of the mechanics.

Representatives of both sides in the dispute welcomed the return of Hahn and three other Democrats -- county Supervisor Gloria Molina and City Councilmen Martin Ludlow and Antonio Villaraigosa -- who had been barred from taking part in the contract talks.

MTA ethics rules had been thought to prohibit the participation in such negotiations of any politician who had accepted more than $10 in campaign contributions from the union, as Hahn and the others had done.

Ludlow and Villaraigosa challenged that interpretation in a lawsuit and, in a one-paragraph preliminary injunction issued Friday morning, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs ordered the MTA to allow the four recused board members back at the table. She offered no legal explanation.

Molina released a statement saying she supports the MTA's position in the negotiations.

Hahn, Villaraigosa and Ludlow held a news conference hailing the injunction and saying the mechanics' rejection of the latest MTA proposal showed that a new path had to be found.

"This changes the whole dynamic," Ludlow said. "You have had a whole squadron of public policy leaders who have been left out.... You had nobody left on that board who is left of center. Our perspective is going to be heard loud and clear."

The three called for arbitration in an attempt to end the strike and even nominated an arbitrator: former county Supervisor Ed Edelman.

"As mayor of the city where most of the users of the MTA system reside ... we feel this strike needs to end," Hahn said. "The buses need to get back on the street. The trains need to get rolling and people need to be able to get back to their jobs."

Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chairs the MTA board, said he welcomed the four members back.

"I'm happy the decision has resolved an issue that has been an awkward situation," Yaroslavsky said. "We'll actually be better served by having everyone in the room.

"When they come in, I think they will start to understand the MTA's perspective a little better," he said, "and they'll get a sense where we might be headed. We have been considering a number of ways to break the logjam."

Though refusing to go into detail, Yaroslavsky said that as early as Monday, the MTA board could start giving more consideration to a form of nonbinding arbitration that would allow a super-majority of the 13-member panel to turn down any contract drawn up by an arbitrator.

Before the union vote began Friday morning at the Los Angeles Convention Center, Silver announced to loud cheers that Ludlow, Villaraigosa and Hahn would return to the negotiations. He then launched into a description of the MTA offer by saying, "This contract sucks."

Details of the MTA offer were made available to most union members for the first time. The proposal spelled out a contract ending in 2006, with an incremental 3% wage hike as well as a stepped increase totaling 81 cents an hour for all mechanics.

The MTA offered to immediately put $4.7 million into the union's nearly insolvent health-care fund, which the ATU uses to buy medical insurance for its workers.

The contract also spelled out how much the MTA would contribute to each worker's health care, with an increase from the current $533 per month for active workers to $607, followed by incremental increases through 2006.

The agency proposed to freeze contributions at $533 for retirees under age 65 and at $142.55 for retirees 65 and older.

After the vote, mechanics disparaged every aspect of the offer. Many said the MTA simply was not offering enough to meet the demands of rising health-care costs. The union has offered to have members increase their monthly health insurance contributions from a maximum of $6 to $71.

"We don't mind paying more as it goes up, but we think that the amount the company pays should go up with us," said union member Leticia Witke, walking out of the Convention Center with her husband, Doug, also an MTA mechanic.

The couple said that although they worried about not bringing home paychecks, they could not afford the MTA's health-care deal, particularly because Leticia is pregnant.

The inclusion of labor-sympathetic Hahn, Villaraigosa and Ludlow may not be enough to sway the 13-member board. But some observers said the three would at least be able to change the tone of the debate.

MTA board members who have been involved in negotiations so far have taken a hard line, saying they would not offer any more money and would not accept an outside panel meddling in the board's affairs.

"The City Hall side is not likely going to have a majority of votes all of a sudden," said Raphael Sonenshein, a political science professor at Cal State Fullerton. "But it would certainly change the debate.

"You are going to hear from the city people to start moving toward settling, or move toward arbitration," he said. "This could have a significant effect rhetorically, which counts for a lot. There's going to be more pressure on the MTA to accommodate."

Labor expert Chris Cameron, a dean at Southwestern University School of Law, said the overwhelming union rejection and the judicial ruling would probably combine to apply a "tremendous amount of pressure on the MTA to accept binding arbitration."

Although Hahn will have a great deal of clout simply by virtue of being mayor, Cameron added, he expects Villaraigosa, a former union leader with a history as a dealmaker during his days as speaker of the state Assembly, to emerge as the leader.

"The mayor has some power, but he's been pretty silent on this and he doesn't have much teeth. The one fellow on the board who seems to really have the clout with the unions and an understanding of management is Villaraigosa," Cameron said.

Cameron and other experts said the MTA still had considerable power, because with its "last, best and final" offer rejected, it could now unilaterally impose a contract at any time and try to force workers to return to their jobs.

Yaroslavsky reiterated that the board did not want to consider such a move, but acknowledged that it remained a possibility.

One factor working in the MTA's favor if it does make such a move is the fact that several Bay Area transit agencies have fired mechanics after budget cuts, leaving scores of highly trained workers in California looking for jobs.

Imposing a contract and hiring replacement workers are tactics commonly used by private firms during strikes, but almost unheard of in the public sector.

One reason is that politicians often fear a backlash from organized labor that could hurt them come election time.

Times staff writers Patrick McGreevy and Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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