L.A. Bus Drivers Fight to Keep Good-Paying Union Jobs

"We're asking for what's been in past contracts," said striking Los Angeles transit worker Tim Del Cambre. "We've had work rules for over 20 years that guarantee decent wages and a quality of life for workers. They guaranteed an eight-hour day and 40-hour work week, and now they want to take it all away."

The reason for the massive transit strike that has tied up Los Angeles since September 16, strikers say, is simply to preserve good-paying union jobs.

Five locals of the United Transportation Union that represent 4,400 rail and bus operators, mechanics, and clerks in Los Angeles County voted 98 percent to strike when their contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) expired June 30. But a "cooling-off period" arranged by California Governor Gray Davis postponed the strike until after the Democratic National Convention.

An example of why workers are upset is MTA's proposal to sharply cut wages when drivers are doing something other than picking up passengers. Drivers, who currently make $12.00-$21.00 per hour, would get only $8.00 during bus preparation and inspection, while driving buses to from the terminal to their designated routes, and when buses or trains break down.

"Sometimes it takes the mechanics two or three hours to get there," said Del Cambre, "and they already want to cut the number of mechanics."

The workers also want to be paid for every hour they are on duty.

Most bus and rail operators have two different route or job assignments during the day, often with unpaid down time in between. "But we have to stay on duty," said Del Cambre. "You can't go home when you live 60 miles from the terminal."

Until now, the contract limited this unpaid downtime to three hours; the MTA wants to raise that to 13 hours.

HELICOPTER PAD

As the strike began, UTU members gathered to picket bus terminals. They also picketed the MTA's towering, multi-million-dollar office building. With imported Italian bricks, and sporting a helicopter pad although the MTA has no helicopter, the MTA built its offices in the early 1990s, as its unions were taking concessions.

Nonstriking MTA workers belonging to the Amalgamated Transit Union and AFSCME honored the picket lines.

On October 5, after 24 days of the strike, Governor Davis requested that the unions go back to work for seven days while negotiations continued. At the same time, he signed a labor-backed bill requiring that any new transit districts the MTA created must honor existing union contracts. The MTA had been planning to break up the transit system, with new districts serviced by private companies. The bill killed that plan.

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It was supposed to kill the strike as well, but it did not.

After Davis signed the bill, ATU Local 1277 President Neil Silver encouraged the 1,860 MTA mechanics in his local to cross UTU picket lines. Only eight did. Most of the 500 MTA supervisors in an AFSCME local refused to cross as well, although their union told them to.

The UTU members also refused to go back to work.

"We had a mass meeting," said UTU spokesperson Goldy Norton. "There was a vote of those in attendance to stand up if they wanted to strike or remain seated if they wanted to go back. Nearly all of them stood up."

PUBLIC SUPPORT

Media reports mostly point out the inability of many working-class bus riders to get to jobs, medical appointments, and other destinations. Newspapers also highlight the loss of business profits.

While there are incidents of would-be bus riders harassing and even hitting picketing strikers, public support seems to be high. SEIU Local 660, which represents 40,000 Los Angeles County health care and service workers, released a poll showing that 69 percent of LA residents supported the transit strike.

Edgar Sanchez, an organizer with the Los Angeles Bus Riders Union, is not surprised. "There is unity because we understand that the real enemy is the MTA," he said. "Passengers have always had problems with bus overcrowding, buses coming too late, fares being too high, but the drivers didn't cause that."

In addition the to bus riders union, civil rights organizations, ministers' groups, and others are supporting the UTU.

MTA made what it called its "last, best and final offer" October 10, giving the union two days to respond. UTU president James Williams called the proposal "a threat" saying, "It's time to end this strike. But you don't end a strike by threatening the labor unions."

The transit strike is part of a large strike wave hitting the Los Angeles area. Commercial actors in the Screen Actors Guild continue their national strike. Over 47,000 SEIU county workers walked out October 11. And 43,000 teachers, librarians, counselors, and nurses in the Los Angeles Unified School District have authorized a strike if their current talks stall. Members of these unions have walked the lines with the UTU.