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MTA Strike Halts Buses Across L.A.

Times Staff Writers

Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics went on strike early today, stranding many of the approximately 400,000 passengers served daily by the bus and rail system in Los Angeles County.

Mechanics union leader Neil Silver set up a picket line at midnight Monday at an MTA bus maintenance facility in the San Fernando Valley. He told mechanics to get ready for a protracted strike.

“This is the beginning of it,” Silver told about half a dozen mechanics carrying picket signs outside the yard moments after midnight. “This is what [the MTA] has gotten for the public.”

The buses still in service at midnight were expected to finish their runs by 2:30 a.m. today. No new buses were expected to leave MTA yards until the dispute is resolved.

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The walkout by mechanics promises to cripple MTA bus and train service, because the MTA’s other unions have said they would honor a mechanics picket line.

“We will have no ability to offer any real alternatives to our customers,” said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble. “We cannot offer any service in any way, shape or form.”

Metrolink commuter rail lines and bus services offered by smaller agencies such as Long Beach Transit will not be affected, and some agencies may try to add buses to pick up the slack.

Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also serves as chairman of the MTA board, called the strike a disaster for people who rely on public transportation.

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“This is a great tragedy for the people of the county of Los Angeles,” Yaroslavsky said. “People who depend on the transit system to get to work, to get to school ... will be held hostage to a set of demands that are unreasonable and unmanageable.”

The two sides find themselves far apart on the key issue of how much the MTA should contribute to the union’s health plan and how it should be managed.

As the reality of a strike closed in, the union, riders and the MTA made preparations for what the transit agency said would be the 10th transportation work stoppage in Los Angeles County since 1960.

The prospect of another walkout caught many bus riders off-guard, and revived bad memories of the 2000 strike by drivers. “They want to go on strike again?” asked Katt Young, 31, of Panorama City. She said she lost her job as a saleswoman for an answering service because she couldn’t get to work during the drivers’ 32-day walkout.

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“It’s so ridiculous,” she said. “Think of the people that have to rely on buses. Think of the kids that rely on buses to go to school. What do you do, take your kid out of school?”

Marina Tovar, a 60-year-old Reseda resident, said Monday she didn’t know what she would do if the buses stopped running. “If there is a strike, I won’t be able to go to my job,” she said. " I don’t have a husband to drive me. My friends can’t drive me -- they all depend on the bus.”

Young and Tovar are among the thousands who depend on the MTA to get to work, school, doctors’ appointments and other destinations.

The agency runs a fleet of 2,400 buses throughout Los Angeles County, and has an expanding subway and light-rail network that stretches from downtown to Pasadena, Long Beach, North Hollywood and other destinations.

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Riders are mostly poor and working class: A recent study by the MTA showed that the median household income is $12,000 for bus riders and $22,000 for train riders.

People who don’t have cars will have fewer options in a strike. Private contractors that already operate buses on 22 of the MTA’s 185 routes will attempt to continue service. During the last MTA strike, those contractors were picketed and were able to keep only about five bus routes running, an agency spokesman said.

Metrolink will accept MTA passes during a strike. Because many of Metrolink’s 35,000 passengers transfer from its trains at Union Station to the MTA’s Red Line, the rail agency planned to run a bus shuttle that generally would follow the subway route to as far as the Westlake-MacArthur Park station.

Some of the smaller municipal bus agencies said they would accept regular MTA passes and try to put more buses on their routes. “We’re going to do all we can to help out people who can’t ride with the MTA,” said Stephanie Negriff, head of the Santa Monica bus system.

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The mechanics had worked without a contract for more than a year. Talks between the MTA and the Amalgamated Transit Union, which represents about 2,500 workers, resumed last week after a 2 1/2-month hiatus.

Negotiations ended without a settlement Sunday night, when a court-ordered 60-day injunction barring a strike or lockout expired. Both sides say they are far apart, largely on the issue of health care.

The MTA makes monthly contributions into the health-care funds of its unions. The unions are then responsible for administering insurance policies for their members.

The mechanics fund is receiving about $1.4 million a month from the transit agency. But the fund’s costs have risen to about $1.9 million over the last year. The union said costs have risen because health insurance premiums have soared, and that the fund is now insolvent. Silver said the union wants the MTA to contribute more to the fund.

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MTA officials contend that the union should manage the fund better and have workers pay more to support it. Currently, union members pay no more than $6 a month for their health insurance. However, the union has offered to increase its members’ payments to about $80 a month.

The transit agency said it offered in talks over the weekend to make the fund solvent with an immediate infusion of more than $1 million. It also proposed temporarily taking over control of the health fund, while promising to raise the monthly payouts per mechanic from about $533 to at least $607. The MTA also offered to increase pay by about 5% over the four-year contract.

Silver, who has turned down several MTA offers over the last 17 months, said he was particularly angered by the MTA’s insistence that it be allowed to indefinitely control the union’s health fund. The MTA believes it can steer the fund in the right direction by making changes in how the fund is maintained.

Late Sunday, MTA officials released an official audit of the union’s health fund, a document detailing the fund’s troubles. The MTA made public some of the results last week, but it had not made the audit available.

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The audit found no wrongdoing, but showed the fund is inefficiently managed. Auditors said the Amalgamated Transit Union keeps its records manually instead of by computer, does not prepare financial statements in a timely way, and has the same person reconciling bank accounts and issuing checks.

Auditors said the health fund’s insurance broker has an “inherent conflict of interest” because most of the union’s insurance carriers pay him commissions based on monthly premiums. “We believe that ATU’s insurance broker has little or no incentive to objectively negotiate lower premiums for ATU members,” the audit states. The audit was performed by a Torrance accounting firm picked by the MTA. The union disagrees with the audit, characterizing it as “garbage.”

Talks between the union and the MTA have been overseen by a state mediator. Four of the MTA’s most pro-labor board members can’t participate in the negotiations because they have accepted campaign contributions from the mechanics union.

Under the MTA’s ethics rules, Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, county Supervisor Gloria Molina and Los Angeles City Council members Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow are barred from the talks because they have taken more than $10 over four years.

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Villaraigosa, a former teachers union leader who now represents one of Los Angeles’ most transit-dependent areas, said a strike would be disastrous for the MTA, its workers and riders, particularly the poor.

He also said the MTA needs to learn how to treat its unions better. “I think the agency has always had a very adversarial approach to the unions and that mystifies me.... These are the people that drive our buses, that fix our buses,” he said. “The MTA does not engage in win-win bargaining that respects that.”

Judging by the mood at bus stops, on trains and in the subway Monday, most riders feel far removed from the political give and take. Riders just want to be able to get around.

David Yehudian, who takes the bus and subway from Woodland Hills to his diamond business in the Jewelry district, said he is ready to pitch in. During the 2000 strike, he drove his minivan along his regular bus route and picked up passengers along the way. “I knew a lot of people had no means to get to work,” Yehudian said. “I would do it again.”

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MTA officials suggested that commuters call (800) COMMUTE for information on alternative bus service or log onto www.mta.net for information on ride-sharing.

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Times staff writers Jennifer Oldham and Caitlin Liu contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

The impact

* The strike by mechanics shuts down all MTA bus lines, subways and light rail.

* Metrolink commuter rail lines will run as usual.

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* Bus service offered by smaller agencies such as Long Beach Transit and Torrance Transit Systems will run as usual.

* Private contractors that operate 22 bus routes for the MTA will try to continue service.


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