The Militant (logo)  
   Vol. 67/No. 40           November 17, 2003  
Los Angeles transit workers strike is solid,
as bosses declare ‘impasse’ in talks with union
(front page)
LOS ANGELES—Two weeks after transit workers here went on strike, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) board of directors declared an “impasse” in its negotiations with the Amalgamated Transit Union. The company is now demanding that its contract offer be brought to the membership for a ratification vote.

Despite MTA intransigence and unfavorable media coverage, the strike remains solid. The central issue in the fight is the transit authority’s attempt to significantly increase health-care costs for workers.

The company is offering what it claims is “a generous and fair last, best and final multi-year offer,” according to an October 29 MTA news release. This contract pro posal, published in the company newsletter The Communicator, has been mailed to all MTA employees.

“We call it the mis-Communicator,” said strike captain Forrest Belmont, a member of Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1277. “Sending the offer directly to strikers is a negative development and it is not sitting well with any of us.” Belmont was on picket duty in front of the main rail terminal here October 30. He also pointed out that the MTA’s latest offer “isn’t that different from the one we rejected last January.”

The breakdown of talks also came with MTA threats that by declaring an “impasse” the bosses can impose a contract and hire strikebreakers. “MTA officials said they had no intention of doing either, but that did nothing to soothe the fears of striking workers,” said an article in the October 29 Los Angeles Times.

After rejecting four concession contract offers, members of Local 1277, which represents 2,000 maintenance workers and 500 retirees, walked out on October 14. Nearly 5,000 MTA bus drivers, train operators, and clerks—all of whom are unionized—are honoring the ATU picket lines.

The contract of the United Transportation Union Local 1563 (UTU), which represents more than 4,000 bus drivers, has also expired. The drivers are not near a contract agreement with the MTA either.

Another 250 bus drivers employed by First Transit went on strike for higher wages October 15. Teamsters Local 572 represents these bus drivers, who are contracted out to the MTA.

Manuel Guzmán, a bus driver and UTU member, said it “was just plain wrong for the MTA to go around the union. No bus driver I know accepts that. They are trying to break the union plain and simple.”

The strike has shut down the third-largest mass transit system in the United States. About 400,000 people use the bus, subway, and light rail lines here every day. In 2000 the bus drivers struck the MTA for more than a month. Since 1960, transit workers have shut down the company 10 times.

Only a small handful of mechanics have crossed the picket line. Strikers say that not one bus driver has crossed the line.

The main contract issue is MTA’s refusal to adequately fund the union’s Health and Welfare Trust Fund. In addition, the employers want more control over the fund, which is currently run by the union. ATU officials say the fund is in the red by $500,000 per month because the company doesn’t pay enough into it to cover the cost of care.

The MTA is also demanding that union members pay more for medical insurance. Union officials say they are willing to propose workers pay $71 per month—a substantial increase over the $6 that mechanics pay now. The MTA insists this is not enough.

Belmont said about a quarter of the union membership of 2,500 is retired. The MTA is attempting to divide retirees from those currently working, he said, pointing to the two-page MTA final offer in which the company will only increase payments for medical care for “active employees.” These increases are not enough to keep up with rising health-care costs, Belmont said. “They are trying to get us to foot the bill.”

The MTA is taking a hard line. “There is no more money that can be or will be added to this offer,” said MTA chief executive officer Roger Snoble in an October 27 press release. “We have had to face the stark reality of living within our means and doing more with less.” “It’s a tragedy for the tens of thousands of people who rely on public transportation to get to and from work,” said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chairs the MTA board. “It is particularly galling that some of the highest paid public employees are holding some of the lowest paid people in America hostage. It is unjustified and unconscionable.”

The big-business press has chimed in as well. The Long Beach Press Telegram editorialized that “MTA employees are taking hostages, and hostage-taking is a tactic of thugs. Whether or not one agrees with the union position, it’s not right to use public transportation riders and the regional economy as pawns.”

A Los Angeles Times editorial stated, “Even residents who wouldn’t recognize a bus stop if they ran into the sign found their lives disrupted when their nannies couldn’t get to work, and so they couldn’t either.”

“The media is trying to brand us as criminals, that we are holding people in the city hostage,” said bus driver Manuel Guzmán. “If we’re such a threat maybe they should get Homeland Security on us and send us to Guantánamo.”

Guzmán was happy to see that nearly 2,000 county workers staged a protest in downtown Los Angeles earlier in the week. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 660, which represents about 50,000 county workers, called the action. There are 90,000 county employees, nearly all in unions whose contracts have expired. As in the United Food and Commercial Workers grocery walkout (see article in this issue) and the transit strike, the main issue is opposition by workers to company demands for health benefit “take-aways.”  
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home