Up to the very last moment, Orange County bus driver Pat Castaneda had every intention of voting to accept the Orange County Transit District's contract offer.
It was a question of her survival, she said.
A single parent, Castaneda has a teen-age son and daughter and a 5-month-old grandson to support. Because of past unexpected expenses, the Santa Ana resident is three months behind on her rent, has a stack of overdue bills to pay and, as she says, "I can't afford to be out of money."
But when it came to a union vote, Castaneda went along with the majority of other bus drivers and voted Sunday night to walk out with 731 others over disputed contract issues such as wages, absenteeism, drug tests and the increased use of part-time drivers.
A strike during the holidays could not have come at a worse time for them and their families, many drivers said.
"I'll snatch a tree if I have to, but I told my daughter we're not going to have Christmas at our house this year," said Castaneda, 38.
For driver Jas Dullat of Costa Mesa, the father of two young children, the strike means "we won't have a tree this year, and we won't have too many presents to exchange. But my family is a pretty strong family. It will keep us together, and together we will fight hard."
For driver Mary Ayala of Santa Ana, the mother of three teen-agers--"big eaters" all--the strike means going back to relying on only her husband's income as a field service worker for Southern California Edison. "It will be tight, just enough for food, and that's it," she said. "Usually we make tamales for the family every year, but this year--no money. And our kids won't get any presents. Nada. "
For Castaneda, the strike, which was entering its fifth day, means that she will pick up her last paycheck today. "And then nothing," said Castaneda, who had been earning about $520 a week. "We can't collect unemployment; we can't collect welfare. Our hands are tied."
During the walkout, the union will provide striking drivers with benefits amounting to $225 to $285 a month, depending on the number of their dependents, a union spokesman said. Drivers must serve on the picket lines to qualify for the checks, the first of which may not be issued until the beginning of January.
A bus driver for more than nine years, Castaneda said, "I love to work; I love my job."
But since Monday, instead of spending her mornings driving the Route 70 bus through central Santa Ana, she has been walking the picket line in front of a road leading into the transit district bus yard in Garden Grove.
"I knew this was coming, and I tried my best to prepare for it," she said, sitting in a motor home parked near the picket line. "The last contract was settled with no problems. I was hoping this one would be the same way, but it wasn't."
A single parent for 10 years, Castaneda said a string of unexpected expenses in recent months caused her to fall behind in paying the $380 rent for her tiny three-room house in downtown Santa Ana: She had to pay to have her car towed. She had to replace her car windshield. And, she said, "I was surprised with a grandchild in July. In a state of shock, I must have spent $400 in three days so my grandbaby would have everything he needs."
During the last Orange County bus drivers' strike in 1981, in which all of the district's buses were idled for 22 days, Castaneda said, "I lost my credit rating. It took two years to recuperate. . . . The strike ruined me last time. I hate it. I'm out here because I have to be, not because I want to be."
Earlier in the day, Castaneda said, a non-striking bus driver attempted to coax her into crossing the picket line.
"But these are my friends, my co-workers. I can't cross the picket line," she said. "It's like the old cliche--together we stand, divided we fall--and I have to stand with my union members."
The strike already is taking its toll on her emotionally, Castaneda said. "I'm scared to death. I go home and sit and cry and my daughter (Jenny Smith) says, 'Don't worry; we're going to make it.' "
With her paycheck today, Castaneda said, she will pay her utility bills and some others. The back rent will have to wait. "My landlady understands my circumstances. She's been very great to me."
Castaneda said she had not bought any Christmas presents before the strike. "I haven't bought nothing. I was waiting for the contract. I told Jenny I'm not buying nothing until we find out what's going to happen to my job."
Jim Evans, attorney for United Transportation Union Local 19, said Thursday that no "concrete plans" have been made regarding how the union may help out bus drivers' families in the event that the contract dispute is not settled soon.
"There's been some discussion about what we'd need to do if the strike continues," he said. "It's kind of early to tell yet. We're optimistic we are going to be able to resolve the strike inasmuch as we're going into mediation with the help of the state mediation and conciliation service."
Castaneda is holding out hope that the strike will be over by Christmas. If not, she said, she'll make the best of it for her family.
"I told them we'll have a Christmas tree--even if it's a little one--and we'll decorate it," she said. "We may not have nothing under there, but we'll be together and we'll have love."
Strike goes on. Part II, Page 1.