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MTA Strike Likely, Union Says

Times Staff Writer

With time running out in a court-ordered cooling-off period, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union representing its mechanics remain far apart in contract negotiations, and the union is threatening to shut down most Los Angeles County bus and train service as early as next week.

“We are prepared to walk out,” said Neil Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 2,500 workers.

Talks resumed this week after a 2 1/2-month hiatus, but there has been little progress, both sides said, particularly on the central issue of MTA contributions to the union’s health benefits. Silver said he had been particularly disheartened after a meeting with MTA negotiators Wednesday that lasted only 15 minutes before ending in dispute. Talks are scheduled to resume today.

“I’m trying to be hopeful,” he said, “but right now I’m 99% sure we will strike.”

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A mechanics strike would be joined by the United Transportation Union, which represents MTA bus and train drivers, labor leaders said, and would effectively stop service by the nation’s third-largest transit agency and strand hundreds of thousands of riders. It would be the first MTA work stoppage since 2000, when a walkout by drivers led to a 32-day agencywide strike.

Metrolink commuter rail lines and bus service offered by smaller agencies such as Long Beach Transit would not be affected.

The mechanics union has worked without a contract more than a year and is nearing the end of a court injunction that barred a strike or a lockout for 60 days. The injunction ends Sunday at midnight. The union could strike Monday, though Silver said a walkout would not be feasible until Tuesday, after a final meeting with other union leaders.

MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble said the agency’s bleak financial picture had made talks difficult. Tight state and federal budgets have forced the MTA to seek concessions from workers, he said. “I certainly hope” there is no strike, he added. “I don’t think our customers deserve that. I would hope we would get into serious negotiations and get this thing resolved.”

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In addition to talks with the mechanics, the agency is working on labor deals with drivers -- who account for the majority of its roughly 10,000 employees -- and a small union of clerks. Those discussions are going better than talks with the mechanics union, but if any of the unions strikes, the others will walk out too, union leaders said.

“Definitely, we would observe the picket line,” said Goldy Norton, spokesman for the United Transportation Union.

At issue for the mechanics union is its health fund, which Silver says is crumbling and needs more support from the MTA. Unions for MTA workers provide their own health benefits from funds supported by the transit agency, the unions and their members.

Silver said that the MTA had not increased the amount it pays into the Amalgamated Transit Union health fund for more than a decade, and that soaring medical costs during that time had steered the fund into insolvency. He said the fund is operating with contributions of about $1.4 million a month, while costs have reached as much as $1.9 million.

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The MTA said that it had long been paying too much for the ATU’s health coverage and that the union needed to manage the fund better and have workers pay more to support it. Union members pay no more than $6 a month for their health insurance, an amount Silver agreed was very low.

The last MTA proposal, in June, offered a one-time infusion of at least $2.6 million to make the health plan solvent.

In addition, over the life of the nearly five-year contract the MTA would increase its monthly contribution to the fund from $533 to $762 per employee, said agency spokesman Marc Littman. In contrast, drivers have been receiving $442 per person under their last contract, and non-contract workers at the MTA, including supervisors, get $607 per month.

The MTA says the union could keep its employee contributions low with better management or by offering different health plans. Silver disputes this, and says the MTA’s last offer would require his workers to contribute $209 per month.

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Silver said he had countered the MTA’s offer by proposing that mechanics contribute 10% of their health costs per month, with the transit agency kicking in the remainder.

As the talks went into the tense hiatus over the last several months, the MTA spent $30,000 for an outside audit of the ATU health plan. The audit found that, in the last year, the union had spent about $400,000 more per month than it had taken in and that the health plan could run out of money by November, according to an MTA spokesman. Silver said the plan is already broke.

Auditors also concluded that about $30,000 a month was going from the plan each month to pay for ATU operations and that the fund was poorly managed, with books kept manually instead of by computer. Silver said his union was working to modernize its record-keeping but was finding it “very difficult” to computerize records from at least six medical plans.

“This audit is garbage,” said Silver, who noted that the review had found no illegal activity by the union in running the fund. “I mean, when it comes to inefficiency, the MTA is expert at that.”

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He accused the agency of trying to make up on the backs of front-line workers for its own wastefulness -- such as mounting a costly and losing legal fight against the Bus Riders Union over a federal agreement to improve bus service.

Apart from the health issue, the MTA offered a series of pay increases totaling about 8% during the life of the contract.

The highest-paid mechanics at the MTA, working on rail cars, make $26 an hour. MTA bus mechanics make about two dollars less. Top-level mechanics in San Jose, maintaining both buses and trains, make $31.60 an hour. In San Diego, the top hourly rate is $23.08, paid to rail mechanics.

The union turned down the MTA’s June offer, saying it was not as good as a proposal made last year.

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Silver said he would not hesitate to lead his workers to the picket lines as early as Tuesday. MTA officials said they hoped he would give notice before taking such an action, if only to give riders time to make other plans.

When negotiations bogged down in January, the mechanics gave Silver authority to call a strike. Like the ATU, the union for MTA drivers exhausted a 60-day cooling off period this summer. But both sides agreed to resume talks this week and to continue indefinitely.

While the MTA wants concessions that it says will allow it to run service more efficiently, drivers hesitate to make concessions, said Charles McMillan, a veteran driver who pilots a Rapid Bus on Wilshire Boulevard. “We are responsible for keeping so much of Los Angeles moving, and all we want is to be treated fairly,” he said.

The drivers’ 32-day strike in 2000 helped shape the future of the MTA. The work stoppage kept the agency from implementing plans to spin off control of bus lines into several geographic zones that would have been staffed by nonunion workers.

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But striking employees also lost about $5,000 each during the walkout, and their clout was damaged, because the MTA was able to hire more part-time workers. Moreover, the MTA board, which had had a long history of infighting, came together during the strike and has largely been united since.

But that board dynamic promises to be different during a strike. A strict MTA ethics law means board members cannot vote on contracts if they have taken more than $10 over the past four years in campaign contributions from parties involved in the vote.

The rule has meant that four pro-labor board members -- Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, county Supervisor Gloria Molina and Los Angeles City Councilmen Martin Ludlow and Antonio Villaraigosa -- can’t participate in the bargaining because they took too much money from the unions. Without them, the board is likely to be much less accommodating toward organized labor.

Brian Taylor, director of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies, said an MTA work stoppage would have devastating effects on the region’s poor, who make up the bulk of the agency’s roughly 400,000 daily riders.

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“The actual effect on traffic congestion would be relatively minor,” he said. “But the effects on the lives of people who have no other way to get around -- things like getting in trouble at work for not being able to make it there -- that would be enormous.”


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