The strike that has shut down the nation's third-largest transit system enters its fifth week today amid subtle signs that the harsh tenor of the negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its striking mechanics may soon ease.
The MTA board met in a closed session Monday for the first time since a now-overturned internal legal decision locked four of the 13 MTA board members out of talks with the mechanics union. Until a court decision Friday, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow and County Supervisor Gloria Molina had been barred from negotiations because they received union campaign contributions.
At Monday's closed session, the board discussed the possibility of arbitration as a way to end the strike, sources said. The board also discussed the financial details of the MTA's latest proposal to the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, whose members on Friday overwhelmingly rejected what the transit agency had called its "last, best and final offer."
"I think we're getting the talks back on track," Ludlow said after the meeting.
The board met for 2 1/2 hours, working through lunch in what sources said was an attempt to understand how far apart the two sides really are with regard to wages and administering the union's health-care plan. Also discussed were the MTA's harsh public stance during the negotiations and the possibility of submitting the dispute to an arbitrator.
County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, MTA board chairman, has angered the mechanics union and other labor leaders by saying the MTA was drawing a hard line in part to change the culture so that "unions know that you don't go on strike against the MTA."
Ludlow called those comments "irresponsible" on Monday and said that he, Villaraigosa and Hahn had asked the MTA's management to stop running radio ads critical of the strike.
Frank C. Roberts, mayor of Lancaster and vice chairman of the MTA board, confirmed that the directors discussed arbitration but said no decision was made. The MTA had rejected an offer by the union to go back to work pending binding arbitration to work out differences between the two parties on health-care benefits and pay.
Although Yaroslavsky has said the board would never agree to arbitration, Hahn called last week for a nonbinding form of arbitration in which a super-majority of the board -- two-thirds or three-fourths -- could overturn a decision that the MTA felt was unacceptable.
Ludlow and Villaraigosa have called for binding arbitration as a way to settle the dispute.
The board is scheduled to meet again Wednesday, but members said they would continue talking by phone and gathering information through the Veterans Day holiday today.
Neil Silver, president of Local 1277, said he had not been told what the board had discussed, and had no comment.