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A Mountain Region's Driving Concerns

Labor: This transit strike wasn't national news, but it deeply affected an inland community.


RUNNING SPRINGS — On Day 13 of the transit strike, there came flickering hope. An emergency meeting was held at the senior center. Thirty-four people showed up, many of them expressing frustration and anger.

"Game-playing," charged Bill Piercy, business representative for the Teamsters Local 572, based in Carson.

"Showboating," replied Neal Hertzmann, chairman of the Mountain Area Regional Transit Authority (MARTA) board of directors.

Yet, the mere fact that they were all in the same room Sept. 9 was a step forward in the standoff. While farther to the north the BART strike was attracting national attention as traffic slogged through the Bay Area like a thick fruity shake through a thin crimped straw, here in the mountains northeast of San Bernardino, MARTA employees--sometimes numbering only one picketer at a time--shouldered strike signs in relative obscurity.

The two strikes occurred simultaneously, but they were of far different proportion and effect. The BART strike involved 2,600 employees, among the highest-paid public transportation workers in the state. The MARTA strike involved 21 people, most of whom earn $8 an hour.

Up north, there was gridlock, but the MARTA strike, affecting communities around Big Bear and Lake Arrowhead, was evident in other ways. It could be seen in the slow gait of the elderly, walking on the sides of roads, and it could be seen in Anthony Davin's slow, one-mile trek on crutches to the grocery store.

Unlike BART passengers, those who ride MARTA, for the most part, are not commuters using public transportation as an alternative to driving. They are people without alternatives.

Davin, who has cerebral palsy, is a regular in the MARTA Dial-A-Ride service. Like most passengers, he's on a first-name basis with the drivers, who often carry his groceries down 25 steps to his front door. They pick up videos at his home to return to the store.

This isn't the transit service of the city. Nor was it a typical labor dispute. During the strike, drivers encouraged people to call them at home if they needed rides. They drove them for free in their own vehicles.

"We know these people," said driver Sal Red Hawk. "We know their names; we know what time they have to be at work."

One year, just before Christmas, Kristine Harnes dropped off one of her regular riders, a young boy, and saw that his mother was upset. She stopped to see if there was anything she could do. The woman, who had three children, explained that her public assistance check hadn't arrived.

Harnes went back to the MARTA office, told her colleagues about the woman, and they took up a collection. Harnes went to the store with about $100 and bought diapers, bologna and cheese, baby formula, whatever she thought the family might need.

"When I helped her put the food away, her refrigerator was completely empty," Harnes said. "She didn't even have mayonnaise."


At last week's meeting, employees and riders wanted answers they weren't getting from the MARTA board. It was a pivotal point in the strike, and, depending on what resulted from the meeting, matters would either flare new flames or cool to a simmer. It had to be one or the other.

It took Harnes an unsettling second to do the math in her head. No, she said, without a paycheck, this single mother of one would not be able to cover next month's rent.

The decision to strike on Aug. 28 was not easy. This is an area where people pretty much try to get along with each other. It's one of the reasons Harnes moved here from Ventura two years ago.

"You can't go to the grocery store without seeing 12 to 15 people you know," she said. "Plus, I'm not a confrontational person by nature. But at the same time, I had to do what I thought was right."

Her sentiments were echoed by one of the board members at the meeting.

"I know many of you intimately," said Gerald Conedy. "You've been to my home, so this has been very hard, but I believe with everything that's in me that this board stands for what is right and is doing the best it can given the circumstances. . . . I'm sorry for the politics. I'm sorry for the protocol. I'm sorry for the things we have to do. . . . We're doing the very best we can."

With the exception of a passerby hurling a plastic bottle toward picketers, there were no incidents of violence or destruction during the strike. On Day 1, management sent out food and cold drinks to picketers.

And even at the Sept. 9 meeting, underlying the adversity, there was characteristic clemency. Esther Delgado, a regular passenger, brought a bag with enough saltwater taffy for everyone.

While not all MARTA employees picketed, no one crossed. The system was effectively shut down, forcing people to make other arrangements for rides--or walk.


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