Three Ways Out of Strike for MTA

Times Staff Writer

As the Los Angeles transit strike drags into its second month, a short list of scenarios has emerged for the next phase of the impasse.

Negotiators for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its striking mechanics union are no closer to agreement on the core issues of health benefits and pay, both sides say.

But the tenor of the discussions has changed in the past week, with the MTA simultaneously taking a defiant stance, including the threat of bringing in replacement workers, and suggesting for the first time that it is open to help from an outside mediator or arbitrator.

"I think the conflict is at a fork in the road," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor.

"One fork, which involves things like privatization, heads toward a broader labor dispute that could have untold long-term consequences," he said. "One fork would just be having this thing drag on and on until we see who has the upper hand.... Then there's arbitration, the fork that leads to both sides working toward a common ground."

The strike, which began Oct. 14, has snarled traffic and left hundreds of thousands of people a day looking for new ways to get to schools, hospitals and jobs in Los Angeles County.

By late October, the MTA had declared an impasse and told Neil Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, that he should allow his members to vote on the transit agency's "last, best and final" contract offer.

Silver obliged, but the mechanics overwhelmingly voted down the offer Nov. 7, the same day that a judge allowed Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and two other labor-friendly MTA board members to return to negotiations. They had been barred because they had accepted campaign contributions from the union.

Participants on both sides of the dispute and outside observers say the combination of the union vote and the return of Hahn, City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow and county Supervisor Gloria Molina has injected new energy into the discussions.

The next official meeting between the two sides is scheduled for this afternoon. Barring a sudden reconciliation, here are three MTA strategies considered most likely.

Agree to Arbitration

Bringing in an outside party to help solve the conflict has been an option since Silver called for binding arbitration in late October. The transit agency immediately rejected the idea, but has since shown some willingness to consider a modified, nonbinding form of outside assistance.

In binding arbitration, the strike would end while the union and the MTA presented their positions to a panel of outside experts. The experts -- probably retired judges or lawyers -- then would craft a new contract that both sides would be forced to honor.

Because both sides stand to lose in binding arbitration, there is a tendency for both parties to submit contract offers that move toward a middle ground, said Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA professor and labor expert.

"There are risks involved," he said, "and it is because of those risks that settlements get reached."

Though Villaraigosa and Ludlow have championed binding arbitration, most of the 13-member MTA board is opposed, arguing that it would be foolhardy to give up control of its $2.7-billion budget to an outsider.

On Wednesday, the MTA board announced that it would ask the union to go back to work while accepting nonbinding arbitration.

Under the MTA's proposal, a three-person panel of arbitrators would draft terms on the conflict's primary sticking point, health-care benefits, but both sides would have an out. The MTA board would be able to turn down the panel's terms with a 60% vote. The union could also reject the deal.

Silver said he was intrigued by the offer and was giving it serious consideration.

"There are still a lot of questions," he said last week. "But we are trying to work something out."

Among the unanswered questions are whether the union would have the right to strike again if neither side could agree to a settlement and how much the MTA would pay into the union's flagging health-care fund during arbitration.

Labor expert Chris Cameron, a dean at the Southwestern University School of Law, said the nonbinding form of arbitration could end up working, simply because it would create dialogue between two sides that have not talked for weeks.

"The longer they talk, the more likely they will work something out," Cameron said. "Once the two sides are talking, that sort of takes the wind out of the sails in the dispute. For one thing, people who have gone back to work in something like this, they don't want to go back on strike."

Impose Contract Terms

Ever since it declared an impasse and made its last offer to mechanics, the transit agency has had the option to unilaterally impose a labor contract, try to force workers back to their jobs and hire replacements for those who do not come back.

Such an undertaking would be fraught with difficulty. Organized labor would view the move as union busting, and other MTA employees, such as the roughly 5,000-member bargaining unit representing drivers, would not warmly greet workers they consider "scabs."

What's more, elected officials on the MTA board such as Hahn, Villaraigosa, Ludlow and the five Los Angeles County supervisors would almost certainly draw the ire of the region's labor movement and possibly face stiff competition in coming elections.

"It's one thing to say that you are willing to engage in a conflict like this," said UCLA's Mitchell. "It's another thing for the MTA to say, 'Unions, we are going to blow you out of the system.' The political repercussions would be tremendous."

Bringing in replacements could also jeopardize the MTA's ability to get federal funding. A provision of the Urban Mass Transportation Act, created in 1964, places limitations on the ability of transit agencies to strip away union jobs while receiving money from Washington for things such as rail projects.

There are other obstacles to bringing in replacements. For one thing, many of the union's mechanics work on computerized engines that run on highly explosive compressed natural gas. MTA officials say their replacements would take at last a year to train, leaving the agency unable to restore full service in the meantime.

Some at the agency have said the MTA could call on recently laid-off mechanics from struggling transit agencies in Northern California as replacements. But the number of available mechanics is actually very small. In San Jose, the hardest-hit Bay Area transit agency, just 15 mechanics have been let go since 2002, hardly enough to make much difference at the MTA.

Silver said he was told by several MTA board members that the agency was considering the eventual creation of "transit zones," an idea that Silver sees as a means of pressuring him to settle the dispute.

Under this scenario, which was discussed through much of the 1990s, the MTA would spin off its bus and train operations into smaller agencies in several geographic areas, leaving the MTA responsible for funding, construction and planning. Advocates of transit zones believe smaller agencies could keep costs lower than the MTA, the nation's third-largest transit system, freeing up money for more service.

Wait It Out

Another option available to the MTA is to simply wait the union out and hope pressure builds among mechanics to settle. Union members, service attendants and mechanics who make between $14 and $26 an hour have already missed two paychecks. Many are having trouble making ends meet on the union's $150 weekly strike checks.

"The bravado that starts any strike starts to wane the longer it goes on," said Cameron of Southwestern.

What's more, while the strike drags on, the union is preparing for a membership vote later this month that could end up replacing top officials. One of the union's board members, financial recording secretary Tommy Elisaldez, is challenging Silver for the presidency, a highly unusual circumstance for a union during a strike.

Though Elisaldez has said he does not agree with the MTA's latest contract proposals, he also has publicly stated that if he had been president the last several years the union's finances would have been healthier and a strike would not have been necessary.

Some MTA officials believe that Elisaldez might be easier to deal with and more agreeable than Silver. Others think Silver might be more willing to bend after he had secured his election.

A factor that helps the MTA be patient is that, as an agency whose operating expenses are not covered by fares, it is saving money during the strike.

"Unlike private businesses like grocery stores, instead of losing money, the MTA is actually coming out ahead," said Tom Rubin, a finance officer at the MTA's predecessor agency, the Southern California Rapid Transit District.

He estimated that the MTA was saving about $5 million a week during the work stoppage on salaries, fuel, electricity for rail lines and other expenses.

"That works against the sense of urgency," he said. "The longer the strike goes on, the more money the MTA has to do the projects it wants to do."

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