Talks between striking bus drivers and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority resumed Thursday, with the two sides still at odds over the transit agency's future direction.
The drivers' United Transportation Union wants to maintain existing protections against further privatization of suburban bus service, believing that legislation recently signed by Gov. Gray Davis will not give it the same safety net that its current contract provides.
The MTA's management wants to keep open the option of creating a new transit zone in the San Fernando Valley, or expanding or creating a new one in the San Gabriel Valley.
Despite the resumption of talks, it was clear that the momentum that had looked so promising earlier in the week was gone.
The bus and rail operators put forward a formal contract proposal Wednesday, but MTA officials described it as "a step backward."
"We did not reject it, but it is a step backward," said Marc Littman, an MTA spokesman. "We are disappointed that it doesn't meet our needs."
Littman said the latest MTA offer includes a 2.7% pay raise over each of the next three years, and pension improvements.
In return, the MTA is asking the union to reduce overtime, accept full-time job slots that can be converted to part-time positions, and scrap what transit agency managers call "antiquated work rules," such as a requirement that no one in MTA yards can do work requiring a screwdriver except a bona fide mechanic.
Negotiators on both sides say the issue of wage and benefit guarantees in the event of a further breakup of the nation's second largest bus system is still a big obstacle to an agreement.
According to sources, the MTA wants to remove provisions of the last contract protecting union jobs, contending that legislation signed last weekend by Davis provides adequate protection. The drivers union insists that it needs the extra protection extended by its last contract.
Meanwhile, MTA chief Julian Burke asked state mediators Thursday to move the contract talks from the Pasadena Hilton to a "more professional" location and establish a formal bargaining schedule.
Burke complained that "our negotiating team has spent countless hours and days sitting around waiting for the union to negotiate."
But Dean Fryer, spokesman for the California Department of Industrial Relations, said state mediators don't have the authority to change the meeting's location or set the format.
Also Thursday, beleaguered mechanics union chief Neil Silver, who broke with the drivers union over the contracting-out protections, was still trying to fend off a barrage of criticism from other labor leaders.
Silver asked his members Tuesday to go back to work for seven days while he continued to try to hammer out a contract. Silver, who pushed the governor hard to sign the bill, said Davis in turn requested that he ask his members to return to work.
Nearly all of the union's 1,860 MTA mechanics remained off the job Thursday. The drivers also refused Davis' request, and reaffirmed their commitment not to return to work without a contract at a raucous rally Wednesday.
Silver, who is up for reelection as president in November, was at the Pickwick Center in Burbank on Thursday, personally handing out strike benefit checks and doing a little politicking with members.
In addition to distributing $100 strike benefit checks, Silver kissed a baby, shook numerous hands and with each check handed members a letter designed to set "the record straight" regarding the Davis bill signing. The document attacks James Williams, head of the drivers union, for not joining him in asking workers to return to their MTA jobs.
Silver called the Williams-organized rally at a downtown arena Wednesday "more like a revival than a union meeting," and called a voice vote by drivers rejecting a proposal that they return to work "a slap in the face of the governor."
Some mechanics, as well as members of other unions, have been predicting that Silver will have trouble getting reelected.
"My membership knows me," said the combative 56-year-old union chief. " . . . My members will decide my fate."