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COLUMN LEFT/ HARRY BERNSTEIN

Bus Mechanics Win One for All Workers : The MTA board's attempt to divide the unions was intended, long-range, to break them.

August 02, 1994|HARRY BERNSTEIN | Harry Bernstein for many years was The Times' labor writer.

The tentative agreement reached early Monday to end the crippling strike against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority certainly did not mean that MTA had broken the mechanics' strike or ended the long-range hopes of some transit board members to break the unions themselves.

But the unity of the striking mechanics, along with clerks, drivers and others who observed the mechanics' picket lines, must have dampened the hopes of the true anti-union MTA board members.

The compromise settlement provides some very limited contracting out of jobs, but far less than management demanded, along the lines previously accepted by clerks and drivers. While final terms of the proposed agreement are still confidential, the strike kept the number of potential job losses to a minimum, to the dismay of some key MTA officials.

The anti-union animus of Supervisor Mike Antonovich and other MTA board members is no secret; they apparently wanted to break the transit unions, not just this strike.

Supervisors Ed Edelman and Richard Alatorre wanted and encouraged talks to get a negotiated settlement, one that reportedly includes much less than the MTA's original demand to contract out many of the mechanics' jobs. Union members will vote on the pact today, so its terms are being withheld pending the vote.

At the onset of the strike, management distributed a "Dear Fellow Employee" letter containing confusing versions of management's contract offer, in an attempt to split union ranks. The letter, signed by MTA's chief executive officer, Franklin White, said that strikers' jobs would not be affected for two years by the increased subcontracting that MTA wants.

That wasn't much solace for workers, but management presumably thought the letter would serve to divide strikers facing the loss of their paychecks while management "saved" millions by not having to issue paychecks during the strike.

Executives are often callous when they look at ways to slash wages and benefits of workers to trim budgets in the public sector or to swell profits of even wealthy corporations in the private sector.

It is hard to cut costs of, say, factory-made equipment, gasoline or electricity. Workers are usually easier targets.

Although the drivers' and clerks' unions had negotiated an agreement with the MTA, the mechanics recognized the long-range dangers to their jobs and at first refused to go along with any contracting out of jobs. That labor split was also a weapon in management's anti-union arsenal, but it did not work.

The MTA ploy didn't do much to help struggling transit riders, either, but didn't hurt the salaries of management, like the $175,000-a-year White.

The MTA demands were part of a nationwide trend toward bashing workers by contracting out jobs in the public sector to private, lower-paying, non-union firms. This trend has brought harsh anti-union battles and vast increases in the hiring of part-time and temporary workers, who usually get no health insurance or other fringe benefits and can be easily cut from the payroll--"disposable workers," as they're often called.

Executives in both the public and private sectors need to look beyond their own special interests to see the broad impact of their actions, as they ratchet down the income of workers and thereby increase the ever-growing number of the working poor. Impoverishment of workers makes more and more of them dependent on government assistance, and in the end it costs all taxpayers more money.

That the MTA's mechanics held out while the other unions were willing to settle was not surprising. Just before the strike, MTA laid off 80 mechanics, arguing that the layoffs were planned earlier and didn't represent a false promise to the workers. Even if that was true, the timing was monumentally stupid.

Was wider politics involved? Consider that the transit unions had asked Gov. Pete Wilson, no friend of labor, for a 90-day "cooling off" period to give more time to seek a settlement without a strike. That proposal was fought by the MTA board, which apparently wanted an immediate strike it thought it would win. Wilson rejected the cooling-off period.

While the buses may be back, the real issue remains--not just for MTA and its workers, but for all of us: Do we really want a low-wage society with fewer and fewer full-time jobs (and fewer and fewer job benefits)? Since the answer, for most of us wage earners, has to be "no," workers around the country should applaud the strikers at the MTA.

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