Contract Negotiations Resume

Times Staff Writers

Negotiators in the transportation labor dispute that has snarled travel for more than 400,000 bus and train riders throughout Los Angeles County returned to the bargaining table late Thursday after a day of miscues, false starts and chilly encounters.

Three days after Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics announced a strike over health benefits, officials with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277 and MTA leaders met at the Sheraton Suites Fairplex in Pomona for the first time since mechanics walked out of transit garages at midnight Monday. The talks continued late into the night.

In an indication of how brittle relations have become between the two sides, union and MTA officials assembled in separate hotel conference rooms and communicated through a mediator who shuttled between rooms.


The meeting, which occurred at the prodding of Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and several City Council members, was nearly doomed before it could begin when a union negotiator was directed to the wrong hotel.

Neil Silver, president of the mechanics union and its chief negotiator, arrived promptly at 10 a.m. at the Biltmore Hotel in downtown Los Angeles, where Hahn had invited him and MTA officials to meet a day earlier.

Silver was perplexed and offended when he could not find anyone to negotiate with -- MTA officials had refused to meet at the Biltmore, saying the meeting was not properly arranged, and were instead waiting for him in Pomona.

“All dressed up and no place to go,” Silver said of the experience, then launched an angry verbal assault on the MTA. “They can’t get their act together.... The MTA in its entire history has made negotiations the most distasteful, painful, long-drawn-out, mind-blowing, heart-wrenching ... the most rotten experience that anyone could have the misfortune of dealing with. And that’s the good side of it.”

While he waited at the Biltmore, Silver got a phone call telling him to go to Pomona. When he arrived there at 12:30 p.m., all the parties were assembled -- the union, MTA officials and the mediator -- yet it would be hours before the parties finally began the task of negotiating. Instead, the principals wandered into a hotel restaurant, collected at opposite sides and huddled over lunch. Negotiations wouldn’t begin for almost five more hours.

The pace of talks has frustrated city officials including Hahn, who say the city and county cannot afford a prolonged strike, such as the monthlong transit shutdown that occurred three years ago.

During a news conference Thursday, Hahn and City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow said they were doing all they could to push the sides to the negotiating table, and Hahn appealed to the striking mechanics to return to work even before an agreement was signed.

“We want to urge the parties to have faith in the process,” Hahn said. “We ought not to wait until the ink is dry to get the buses rolling again.”

Villaraigosa voiced frustration with the MTA, saying the agency has to do more to resume talks.

“What’s going on here is unacceptable,” Villaraigosa said. “There’s just no sense of urgency on the part of the MTA.”

Hahn and the councilmen had, on Wednesday, attempted to arrange talks at the Biltmore, inviting both sides to attend. MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble turned the invitation down, saying that if the union wanted to talk, it would have to notify a state-appointed mediator.

“The problem with that is there’s no sense of urgency,” Villaraigosa said. “There’s a strike going on. There’s 500,000 people without a bus and there’s no urgency. I just don’t believe there’s a sense of urgency [on the part of the MTA] that we’ve got to do everything possible to stop this strike.”

A labor negotiator for 15 years, Villaraigosa said negotiations only succeed “when you sit around the clock and force people to get tired.... That’s how you get to a deal.”

For their own part Thursday, MTA officials thanked city officials for their involvement, but requested pointedly that they “back out” of the fray.

“At this time, it would be most helpful for all parties that are not directly involved in this very delicate situation to step back and let our bargaining teams work to complete their mission,” Snoble said.

“It’s a hard mission and a complicated mission, and they need to concentrate on what they’re doing.”

The MTA head also appealed to mechanics to return to work as early as Sunday, saying there was plenty of incentive for them to do so.

“A great incentive is to serve the people that are out there, the people that make their livelihoods possible, that’s the incentive they have,” Snoble said.

“We’re at the negotiating table, where this belongs, where it should have been settled in the first place, so let’s get the service back on the street and conclude our business in a professional way.”

The mechanics union and the MTA have been clashing for 17 months, and the union’s 2,200 members have been without a contract for a year.

Among the key sticking points is the administration of the union’s health benefits. The MTA is seeking greater control over a six-member panel that oversees the union’s $17-million health insurance fund, which is funded almost entirely by the transit agency. MTA officials want union members to pay more for their coverage. They also say that the union has mismanaged the fund and that it will be bled dry in the coming months.

The union’s Silver said he would be willing to give up partial, but not complete, control over the health insurance fund -- and that union members would pay up to 10% of the cost of insurance, or about $70 a month. Mechanics now pay no more than $6 a month.

The MTA insists that the union’s proposed increase is not enough to cover the gap.

“The issue is how much we contribute to their health and welfare trust fund, and the underlying issue is we need some assurance that that money is going to go to the employees whose benefit it’s for,” Snoble said. “That’s our whole point.”

In response to the strike, the mayor has directed the city Department of Transportation to deploy additional traffic control officers to key intersections experiencing gridlock, extend DASH shuttle bus service to longer hours, increase service on 26 Commuter Express lines run by the city and step up impounding of cars that are parked illegally, slowing traffic.

One complication in the negotiations is the MTA’s position that state law prohibits Hahn, Villaraigosa, Ludlow and county Supervisor Gloria Molina -- all four of whom are MTA board members -- from participating in negotiations because they have received political contributions of more than $10 from the unions involved.

On Thursday, Ludlow and Villaraigosa said they plan to file a lawsuit in Los Angeles Superior Court today challenging the county counsel’s interpretation of the ethics rule to prohibit them from participating in negotiations.

“They want to be full-fledged MTA board members like everyone else and participate in the talks,” said Sharon Delugach, a spokeswoman for Ludlow.

Times staff writer Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.



MTA strike at a glance

The union that represents about 2,200 active and retired MTA mechanics has been on strike for three days. More than 5,000 MTA drivers, supervisors and clerks honored the walkout, which shut down all subway and light-rail lines and the vast majority of bus lines.

* For the first time since the strike began, union leaders met with MTA officials Thursday, at a Pomona hotel.

* The mechanics union is demanding that the MTA contribute more money to its health fund to cover rising costs. Workers also want a raise.

* The MTA has offered to provide more money for the health fund, but it wants more control over how the fund is managed.

MTA officials said they would agree to a roughly 5% raise, paid over four years.

* Metrolink trains, as well as buses of smaller transit agencies, including Santa Monica, Long Beach, Culver City and Torrance, continue to operate.

From a Times Staff Writer

Los Angeles Times