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500,000 Affected by MTA Strike : Labor: Walkout by mechanics is honored by drivers and clerks, taking 85% of buses off streets. No further talks are scheduled.

July 26, 1994|RICHARD SIMON and NORA ZAMICHOW | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Los Angeles staggered to work Monday, car-pooling, hailing cabs, hitchhiking and even walking on the first day of a bus and train strike that left more than half a million riders desperately searching for other modes of transportation.

The walkout by the Metropolitan Transit Authority's 1,900 mechanics--honored by 5,000 bus and rail drivers and transit clerks--came after talks on a new contract broke down between the MTA and the mechanics union late Sunday night. Although unions representing the drivers and clerks reached tentative last-minute contract agreements, they decided to support the mechanics' strike.

It was the first shutdown of the nation's second-largest transit system since 1982, when drivers walked off the job for five days. It was a day of aggravation, uncertainty, sore feet and occasional violence by striking workers who viewed themselves as pawns in the MTA's desperate effort to balance its annual budget of nearly $3 billion.

In Beverly Hills, three striking drivers attempted to hijack an MTA bus driven by a temporary driver about noon, police said. The suspects boarded the bus and threatened the driver with violence while the sole passenger aboard fled, said Lt. John Dunkin, an LAPD spokesman. Two were arrested.

The strike's full effect on traffic was not expected to be felt until today, when more bus and train riders, having more time to plan, turn to cars. "A lot of people just didn't go to work; some people just got scared off," said Jerry Baxter, director of the local Caltrans office.

On Day 1:

* Riders waited for hours in vain as only about 15% of the buses hit the streets. Because the strike was not called until after midnight, many riders were unaware of it until they showed up at their bus stops. Only about 310 buses--compared to the normal 1,200--rolled on the 30 busiest routes, and service was limited to between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Substitute buses included yellow school buses driven by private drivers hired by the transit agency at a total cost of $160,000 a day. White paper covered the word school and the MTA's "circle M" symbol was added to the front, sides and rear of the buses. As the news sunk in, some called taxicabs, which reported booming business. Some raised their thumbs and hitchhiked, drawing occasional cooperation from commuters. Others called friends, and many simply gave up and went home. Moaned one San Fernando Valley rider: "I have to pray for a ride."

* No further negotiations were scheduled. There were signs that the strike could be prolonged because the main sticking point--the transit agency's desire to contract out some work done by unionized mechanics--is a life-or-death issue to organized labor in many sectors of the economy. Complained Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, an MTA board member: "The mechanics, representing less than a third of the (striking) work force, have disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of Angelenos--all in order to preserve archaic work rules that reward inefficiency and cost taxpayers millions of dollars."

Responded Joe Drouin, a shop steward for the Amalgamated Transit Union, who was walking on a picket line outside a bus yard in Downtown Los Angeles: "We're fighting for our livelihood."

* The lack of buses caused unusually high absenteeism in schools across the city. At Crenshaw High School, about 500 students out of 1,600 were absent Monday. "Our attendance is down significantly due to the bus strike," said Jacqueline Wyse, the summer school principal. "I hope it's not going to go long-term. We have a lot of kids who want to be here."

* The alleged hijacking attempt by striking drivers was the harshest action of the day. It was foiled when police officers noticed the bus pulled over in an odd spot near Wilshire and San Vicente boulevards and boarded it.

Five-year MTA driver Benjamin Leyva and seven-year driver Ace Brawner, both of Los Angeles, were arrested and booked on suspicion of robbery. Police were seeking a third suspect, who fled.

"We don't advocate this; we don't condone it. We certainly regret it," said Goldy Norton, spokesman for the United Transportation Union. "Sometimes people just do things they shouldn't do. We think it's absolutely the wrong thing to do."

The MTA reported 40 acts of vandalism against buses and property Monday. The city's Department of Transportation reported that eggs and rocks were thrown at city DASH buses and that a rock broke the windshield of a Commuter Express bus.

The MTA pledged to go to court Wednesday to seek a temporary restraining order to limit union picketing at its properties.

On the Streets

At street corners throughout town, despair set in early among the transit-dependent who make the vast majority of the 1.2 million daily boardings of MTA buses.

Bea Alexander, who lives in Hollywood and works Downtown as a secretary, was fuming as she sat in a friend's house, waiting for a car ride that would get her to work hours late.

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