In a blunt message to Gov. Gray Davis and a signal that no end to their walkout is in sight, striking bus drivers refused to return to their jobs Wednesday at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
"Should we go back to work?" asked James Williams, the general chairman of the United Transportation Union, which represents 4,400 striking bus and rail operators, many of whom were gathered for a raucous meeting downtown.
The question was put to the drivers at the urging of Davis, who signed a union-backed bill Saturday that effectively makes it more difficult to privatize parts of the MTA system.
The chorus of "no" from the 2,500 voices lasted 35 seconds.
Williams, gray-haired, wearing glasses and a conservative brown suit, responded to the voice vote: "I don't think the governor heard you . . . "
Again, shouts of "No! . . . No! . . . No! . . . " resonated from the walls of the historic Grand Olympic Auditorium, as the union members and their leaders reaffirmed on the 19th day of their strike their vow to last "one day longer" than management in the bitter dispute.
Lost in all the fist-pumping, high-fiving fervor were the hopes by MTA management that Williams would present the strikers with details of the latest contract offer, which was handed over to the UTU leaders Tuesday night.
The MTA's chief executive officer Julian Burke declined to go into specifics on the offer, but said it "broke new ground and included significant improvements" in employees' current pension contributions.
"UTU leadership had an opportunity today to present its membership with this deal to end the strike," Burke said in a statement released by his office. "Instead, UTU leaders used the meeting to prolong this strike and cause additional hardship for the people in our community who depend on public transportation to get to work, to school and to medical appointments."
Later in the day, UTU officials gave the MTA what they said was a comprehensive offer, their most complete so far. They said they would not meet again until this evening.
A spokesman for the governor called the rally and drivers' refusal to go back to work "regrettable."
"The governor thinks that it is even now more critical for both parties to be reasonable, to sit down, and to end the strike as quickly as possible," said spokesman Byron Tucker.
Although the two sides were trading offers Tuesday and seemed to be closing in on a deal, they seemed far apart on Wednesday.
Evidence that unions were digging in came when Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, announced that the AFL-CIO was contributing $50,000 in groceries to the strikers.
Friday will be the first day that bus and rail operators and the MTA unions supporting them, including most of the rank-and-file mechanics and clerical workers, will go without a paycheck. Drivers will receive up to $600 a month in strike benefits from their union. Members of the clerical workers Transportation Communications Union are supporting the strike, and are eligible for up to $100 a week in strike benefits.
Even though the UTU has broken with the AFL-CIO, Contreras has participated in the contract talks and backed the drivers at every turn.
"We are with you in this strike," Contreras told the strikers. He was joined on the speakers platform by Jim Santangelo, president of the Joint Council of Teamsters. Santangelo said he was getting his orders directly from James P. Hoffa, president of the Teamsters international union.
Continuing the Fight
The fact that the meeting was held in one of the city's oldest boxing venues gave the event a "Rocky"-like atmosphere, with constant fist-pumping and numerous allusions to prizefighting.
"This fight had to happen," said Contreras. "It had to happen because the MTA wants to change the way it does business . . . They want to be in the subcontracting-out business. They don't want to provide middle-class jobs, with middle-class salaries. They want to be a part-time operation. So this fight had to happen because it's about the future of the MTA."
Santangelo was drowned out by cheering drivers when he repeated a warning he gave to Teamsters about crossing picket lines: "We're not going to get mad and fine you," he said he told his members, "we are going to throw you out of the Teamsters."
Teamsters support is crucial to the strikers because some municipal bus lines are operated by that union's drivers.
Contreras and Williams rebutted Burke's statement about the offer presented to the UTU negotiators Tuesday night. Contreras said the MTA management still has not presented its "last and best offer."
The governor first got involved in the labor dispute in the summer, when he arranged for a 60-day "cooling off" period. Then he sent two of the state's most experienced negotiators, along with Stephen Smith, director of the state Department of Industrial Relations.