Top Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials and leaders from the agency's striking mechanics union met Sunday in a bid to end the five-week strike and get countywide bus and train service rolling again.
Negotiators, meeting in an otherwise closed Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles, were working on an agreement to begin nonbinding arbitration that would send the union's members back to their jobs while a panel of outside experts drew up a proposal on health benefits, sources close to the talks said.
Both the union and the MTA would have a chance to turn down the panel's recommendation.
The two sides also discussed avoiding arbitration and simply signing a new deal without outside help, said Neil Silver, president of the mechanics' Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277.
Ending the dispute without arbitration was seen as the least likely of the two alternatives.
"We are meeting," said Silver, reached by telephone during a break in Sunday's negotiations. "We are trying to rack our brains out to get our people back to work and get the buses and trains moving again."
MTA officials would not comment on the talks.
Silver's union represents about 2,800 MTA active and retired mechanics and service attendants whose hourly pay ranges from $14 to $26.
The negotiations included county Supervisor and MTA board Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky, MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble and his labor relations team, and MTA board member and Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, Silver said.
The two sides also held a meeting Friday.
Friday's meeting was the first face-to-face negotiations between the two sides since late October, when the MTA broke away from talks, declared an impasse and issued a "last, best and final" contract offer that was overwhelmingly voted down by rank-and-file union members soon after.
The strike, largely over health benefits and wages, started Oct. 14. It has essentially shut down the nation's third largest transit agency, which typically carries about 400,000 riders countywide on most days.
Municipal bus companies, such as Long Beach Transit, are still operating, along with Metrolink commuter trains and a small number of privately operated buses that are running on MTA routes.