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THE MTA STRIKE : Mechanics Don't Want Layoffs--or Long Walkout : Union: Action is over job security, not pay, say workers who make an average of $44,000 a year.


He can trouble shoot a broken transmission in nothing flat. Leaky air systems and worn brakes are the kinds of thing he can almost fix with his eyes closed.

If only bus mechanic Lawrence Dupre could repair those broken-down negotiations between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the Amalgamated Transit Union.

"With the economy the way it is, there's not a person out there who can afford this," Dupre said during a break from picketing.

"We get no strike benefits. This first week is a test: Come next week, we're all going to have to get out and find some kind of job and make some money. If this goes 30 days, I'm in a serious bind."

Unlike most strikes, the walkout that started at 12:01 a.m. Monday is not over money.

The average mechanic earns about $44,000 yearly, according to the MTA. The average service attendant salary is about $35,500.

For MTA mechanics, the $20.83 per hour top-pay rate is the third-highest in the country. Transit system mechanics in San Francisco ($22.99) and Boston ($21.43) earn more. But they earn less in Chicago ($19.31), New York ($18.84), Seattle ($19.73) and Washington ($19.38).

Both sides agree that job security is the issue that has idled the MTA's buses.

Besides mechanics, the striking union represents such workers as bus cleaners, electricians, roving janitors, signal inspectors, welders and cabinetmakers. Union members are worried that the MTA plans to phase out some of their jobs by contracting work out.

The average MTA mechanic has been on the job 15 years and has another eight to go before retirement.

MTA officials acknowledge that they are trying to save money wherever they can.

"About 80 ATU employees were recently laid off as part of a cost-reduction process," MTA spokeswoman Andrea Greene said Wednesday. "It's the layoffs that caused this."

According to Greene, the mechanics' pink slips came as part of an agencywide belt-tightening triggered by the recent formation of the MTA through the consolidation of the former Southern California Rapid Transit District and the Los Angeles County Transportation Commission. In all, 550 jobs were eliminated, she said.

The issue of the outside contracting of work arose when details of the layoffs were being worked out between the MTA and the union, Greene said.

At the time, the transit agency had agreements with 17 outside groups to do such work as power sweeping, building maintenance, fence repair and public address system repair. One contract with the county Probation Department called for the use of juvenile offenders to scrub graffiti off bus seats and windows.

Now the union is refusing to let the MTA resume any of the outside contracts unless all of the laid-off workers are first rehired, Greene said.

That is true, said Carlos Curiel, a vice president of the mechanics' union. "We're telling them they cannot subcontract out as long as one of our members is laid off," he said Wednesday.

But the issue of subcontracting goes deeper than that, according to Curiel.

"Specifically, they said they wanted to subcontract 10% of our work . . . they want to subcontract 10% of everything we do--generators, alternators, everything. That's a lot of work out the door."

Curiel said the MTA has informed the union that it is willing to halt outside contracting if the union is willing to give up about 400 more jobs.

Greene said she was unable to immediately respond to that report. "I can say no current ATU employee will lose his or her job as a result of MTA subcontracting proposals."

Union members say reducing the mechanics' work force is false economy. They say they have kept aging MTA buses in service years longer than other transit agencies would have.

"We've got 220 Grumman Flexibles that we bought in 1978, I believe, that had cracks and the air conditioners didn't work. Hawaii had them too, and got rid of them. New York had them and put their fleet to sleep," Curiel said.

"We've kept buses going way after others have junked them or sent them to Mexico."

Dupre agrees. The transit agency he worked for in the New Orleans area bought new buses when the old once wore out. "We keep them rolling here," the 41-year-old North Hollywood man said.

Dupre, who has had his job for 14 years, said he hopes negotiators get things rolling too.

"I grew up doing mechanics with my father," he said. "I learned diesels in the Army. I love my job. This is definitely my life."

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