Bus Strike Ends in Victory for Driver-Rider Alliance

For decades, Los Angeles’ bus drivers and bus riders have looked at each other across the fare box with suspicion. The Metropolitan Transit Authority has told riders that drivers’ salaries were behind the pressure to raise fares. Drivers, in their turn, got the message that the only way to keep their jobs secure and make a living was to stick it to riders in the fare box.

Yet when the recent 32-day drivers’ strike ended, its most remarkable achievement was a new alliance drivers and riders forged against the MTA.

In fact, not only was that alliance responsible for winning the strike, but it marks a new shift emerging in the city’s balance of power, based in Los Angeles’ changing demographics.

Bus riders are the base of the city’s new economy. Overwhelmingly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, riders are the room cleaners in downtown luxury hotels, seamstresses from the garment sweatshops, day laborers who get jobs on the street corner, domestics riding to work in Beverly Hills mansions, and janitors taking the late-night run home from cleaning the city’s sparkling glass office towers. They are the city’s poor, its newest residents, the workers at the bottom of LA’s stratified class structure.

A majority of the drivers, on the other hand, are African-Americans. Over the last two decades, thousands of Black workers found themselves in the street when LA’s steel, auto, and tire plants closed. Driving a bus is one of the few secure jobs left, carrying benefits and a salary high enough to allow a family to buy a home.

Drivers had an uphill struggle defending those wages and conditions. As one picketer said, “There’s a lot of resentment out there against people of color, especially women, making $50,000 a year.”

Los Angeles’ changing economy has pitted these two sections of the workforce against each other. It’s political structure is rife with elected officials who exploit the consequent hostility. Overcoming this divide shows a new level of sophistication in both communities.

RAIL SYSTEM

What riders and drivers finally saw was the real reason for the upward pressure on bus fares: not salaries, but the huge construction budgets for new rail systems bringing mostly white commuters in from the suburbs. The rail system in turn supports further land development on the city’s fringe, the giant firms paid millions to do the work, and the old guard of the city’s labor movement--the building trades--who get the construction jobs.

When the MTA went after cuts in bus service to pay for rail, the Bus Riders Union went to court, winning a consent decree mandating minimum service levels and better maintenance on the buses.

The transit strike was originally another defensive battle, waged against MTA efforts to win further concessions to pay ballooning construction costs. The authority wanted to convert hundreds of existing full-time jobs to part-time, and reduce the salaries paid to the workers affected.

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Limiting overtime was another goal. In fact, the MTA wanted to require drivers to pilot their buses through LA’s heavy traffic for 13 hours, but get paid for only 10. In the hot LA housing market, the drivers’ 50-55 hour week at their $21 scale barely makes a mortgage payment.

Behind the economic demands, the MTA sought freedom to break up the system, spinning off geographic areas into autonomous units, a precondition for turning operations over to private contractors. In the first of these districts, the Foothill District in the San Gabriel Valley, drivers’ wages plummeted to $8.50-9.30/hour.

“We’ve opposed the so-called transit zones from the very beginning,” says Eric Mann, a member of the planning committee of LA’s Bus Riders Union. “We see them as a move to lower wages, and eventually privatize the system, bringing service cuts and higher fares for riders as contractors look for higher profits. One of the best things coming out of the strike was that the drivers saw this too.”

BUS RIDERS UNION

When the strike started, the riders’ union began organizing big rallies to support the drivers. At its end, over 850 drivers signed letters demanding no cuts in service.

“There was a radical change in the attitude of the drivers towards the riders’ union,” Mann explains. “In the past, their union relied on an insider relationship with the MTA, and saw us as troublemakers. That’s not true anymore.”

Miguel Contreras, the first Latino head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, came to the drivers’ defense. Instead of siding with the building trades and MTA management to defend rail construction, Contreras sided with the drivers and riders. That reflects big changes that have taken shape in LA labor over the last ten years. Today the federation’s most active unions include janitors, hotel workers, and garment workers. Community-based projects organizing day laborers and domestics have won labor support. They all had to respond to the needs of their members as bus riders. Contreras took their side.

The settlement which ended the strike was a compromise. It allows the MTA to begin hiring part-timers at lower wages. Overtime will be limited, and management will be able to intervene on work rules.

NEW POLITICAL TRUTH

But these compromises are overshadowed by a new political truth. The city’s low-wage workers showed themselves willing to defend higher wage-earners. Latinos made common cause with African-Americans. Drivers came out against service cuts directed against working class bus riders, while rail service for suburban commuters eats up precious transit dollars.

Just a few months ago, LA’s immigrant janitors fought a celebrated strike to make drastic improvements in wages and conditions close to the bottom, the latest in a decade-long series of rebellions from below. They won the support of the city’s emerging Latino political establishment, against the downtown old guard.

When that movement came to the support of the drivers, it recognized a basic common interest. The city’s low-wage workers desperately need the public sector—social welfare, better public schools, subsidized transportation, free healthcare and other public services. As LA county workers today find themselves engaged in a bitter struggle for wage increases and higher budgets for public services, this new labor-based alliance has the power to redefine who will benefit from the city’s new economy.