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NEWS ANALYSIS : Will Riordan Help or Hinder Transit Negotiations? : After the DWP and police contract settlements, some figure he is a soft touch for the bus drivers union. But others are counting on the mayor's deal-making savvy.


On one side are angry Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus drivers trying to preserve what they've got. On the other side is Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, portraying the unionized transit workers as greedy people who earn "two to three times" more than the average bus rider.

That, in a nutshell, is the MTA labor dispute in which a strike was narrowly averted over the weekend but may occur Monday.

The biggest question is whether Riordan is going to strengthen management's hand with his shoot-from-the-hip style or weaken it by cutting a creative but unfavorable deal with the unions.

Riordan, who as mayor controls four of 13 seats on the MTA board that governs Los Angeles County's transit system, helped stop a strike by insinuating himself into the dispute last week. However, some MTA board members eye Riordan's participation with apprehension. They fear that he will acquiesce to union demands if it comes down to the unsavory prospect of a strike.

Last year, Riordan brokered a pay raise for unionized Department of Water and Power workers that he later said he regretted. That pay hike served as the basis for Los Angeles Police Department salary demands that ended only after months of acrimony and saber-rattling by bitter officers.

"The unions have figured out after the DWP and police negotiations that Riordan is a soft touch," said one board member, who, like most associated with the transit talks, spoke only on condition of anonymity.

The labor dispute is the result of an effort by the MTA to take away benefits that bus and train drivers earned over the years when their unions and the county's old transit agencies, which operated the Pacific Electric railway lines, were powerful forces. In more recent decades, that relationship was cemented by the friendship of Mayor Tom Bradley.

But in the past several years, public employee unions have come under increased pressure as once-plentiful government coffers dried up because of Proposition 13, a pounding recession and changing political priorities. And union-friendly Democrat Bradley has been replaced by Riordan, a Republican who was elected on a platform of promoting privatization of government services--an anathema to unions.

Officials say the MTA and its unions, whose contracts expired June 30, are close to an agreement on wages, but disagree over proposed changes in work rules and subcontracting. The agency wants to turn over some bus lines to private operators in a cost-cutting effort, cut back on drivers' overtime and reduce the MTA's contribution to workers' health benefits.

Union members insist that contracting out will turn some of their jobs into less well-paying private-sector positions. They say their wages, which for the most senior bus drivers is $18.45 an hour, are not excessive for the long hours and dangers they face, including harassment as well as violence from passengers.

Transit officials say MTA bus drivers are among the highest-paid in the nation, but that difference is minimal: In New York, drivers earn up to $17.71 an hour, but negotiations are under way on a new contract. In Chicago, bus drivers earn up to $17.60, but their top hourly wage will rise to $18.65 by the end of next year.

The MTA labor dispute, involving 6,400 drivers, mechanics and clerks and potentially affecting more than 1 million passengers, is being played out on an increasingly shrill battleground.

The agency, which last week cut bus service and raised fares in an effort to erase a $126-million budget deficit, has set aside $35,000 to pay two consultants to advise the MTA's public relations staff on how to sell management's side. It has also hired a $290-an-hour private labor attorney, Gordon Krischer, as the agency's chief negotiator. It has spent $180,000 for ads that claim, among other things, that most bus drivers earn more than $50,000 a year and $18,000 worth of benefits. Drivers call the ad misleading because it does not include the fact that they are often required to work 10-hour days or longer, leading to heavy overtime pay.

In this tense environment, Riordan has become a central figure in the negotiations.

"He is the 100-pound gorilla," one political consultant said. "He's a very savvy negotiator. He is sometimes a cocktail napkin deal maker, but . . . his approach is sometimes far and away better than any methodical, well-organized, plotted-out strategy."

Friction has already arisen between Riordan, who is more accustomed to striking deals in corporate boardrooms, and the MTA's chairman, county Supervisor Ed Edelman, a low-key, cautious mediator.

"Riordan wants to be loved. If there's a strike, the public will point a finger at us--we will be the bums," one board member said.

Riordan agreed to meet union leaders in an unusual session tentatively set for today. Workers were scheduled to walk off their job two days ago, but a union leader approached Riordan in the hallway Friday and proposed the meeting.

Virtually everything in dispute involves benefits awarded years ago that the MTA now wants to take away.

These include the automatic cost-of-living increases awarded quarterly on top of annual pay raises; work rules that allow drivers to collect time and a half, even if they do not work a 40-hour week and an employer health benefit contribution that is higher for union members than for non-union MTA employees.

For his part, Riordan laughed when told that some consider him a soft touch.

"I've had people criticize me for being too tough," he said. He said he had lobbied Gov. Pete Wilson last week not to call a 60-day cooling off period--a move that would have forbidden a strike for two months. If a strike were delayed until September, he reasoned, unions would have more leverage because the walkout would occur when students return to school.

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