Bus and train operators for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority voted overwhelmingly Monday to authorize a strike, hoping to ratchet up pressure on the agency to agree on a new contract.
Almost 98% of the United Transportation Union members who cast ballots voted to give union leaders the power to call a strike, but no date for a walkout was set. Negotiations are to resume today with the assistance of a state mediator.
In response to the union vote, MTA officials plan to immediately ask Gov. Gray Davis to impose a 60-day cooling-off period. That would prevent a strike until after the Democratic National Convention is held in Los Angeles in mid-August.
The MTA's contracts with three separate unions representing the vast majority of its employees, including bus and train operators, mechanics, and clerical workers, expire at midnight June 30.
With time for bargaining running out, negotiations with the United Transportation Union reportedly are moving slowly. No agreement has been reached on scheduling and overtime, health benefits, reducing workers' compensation losses and other subjects.
James A. Williams, general chairman of the union, said in a statement that the vote does not mean a strike will take place.
"It has been the case for many years that meaningful negotiations do not really begin until there is some kind of a deadline in place, and this is the first step in establishing such a deadline," he said.
The union represents 4,268 bus and train operators, and any walkout would cripple transit operations. MTA spokesman Marc Littman said the agency would be unable to operate the subway system and two light rail lines. Bus service would be severely curtailed, with MTA able to run only very limited service.
"We don't want a strike. It would be very disruptive to our customers," Littman said. "We feel we can work it out at the bargaining table, but we need more time."
The MTA's chief labor negotiator, Thomas Webb, said the strike authorization vote "sends the wrong message to all of the people who are looking at or are involved with the MTA--employees, customers and the critics of the authority who are concerned about our ability to provide competitive service."
MTA officials are determined to reduce the agency's hourly operating costs, which are higher than other transit providers in the Los Angeles region.