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Jackson Kept Hope Alive in Negotiations

Mediator: The civil rights leader is credited by both sides with rescuing talks from the edge of collapse.

October 18, 2000|DOUGLAS P. SHUIT and RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

As elected officials, news reporters, transit agency policy wonks and others teetered on the verge of exhaustion after a marathon 24-hour negotiating session early Tuesday morning, the Rev. Jesse Jackson literally ran from room to room in the Pasadena Hilton, pulled by his faith that a settlement in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's 32-day strike was within reach.

"I felt it would be irresponsible to walk out with less than victory," Jackson said.

At 6 a.m., it looked as if he was the only one who thought that.

Talks between leaders of the MTA and the union representing 4,400 striking drivers were on the verge of collapse. The distrust and anger that had led to a bitter impasse hung in the air like a stale odor. Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, frustrated, said he had a speech to give at 7 a.m., and if there was no agreement, he was leaving.

An hour later, everyone was all smiles. Riordan, Jackson and other participants were standing in front of television cameras announcing they had a deal.

Everyone gave Jackson credit for cementing it.

"He pushed everybody," Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, chairwoman of the MTA board, said. "He told us, 'You've got to get this over with.' "

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday October 20, 2000 Home Edition Metro Part B Page 3 Metro Desk 1 inches; 23 words Type of Material: Correction
MTA negotiations--An incorrect first name was used for John Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, in a story in Wednesday's editions of The Times about the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

The epiphany had come minutes before.

That was when James Williams, leader of the bus drivers union, walked into a negotiating room and told Riordan, "Mayor, you are a tough foe. The strike is over. It's time for the buses to roll,' " Jackson recalled.

"That was a glorious moment," Jackson said.

Interrupting a campaign swing for Vice President Al Gore to jump into the middle of the bitter transit strike, Jackson emerged Tuesday as the person who held the warring parties together long enough to forge an agreement.

For weeks, as the impasse between the MTA and UTU dragged on and deepened, one name after another was floated as a possible mediator in the dispute. Gov. Gray Davis, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D-Sherman Oaks) and Cardinal Roger M. Mahony all put up candidates.

One by one, the proposed mediators either fell by the wayside or tried and failed to forge a settlement.

Jackson himself said he had twice offered Riordan his help.Both times, the mayor declined.

"He said, 'Thanks, but no thanks," Jackson said, recounting his first conversation with the mayor several weeks ago. At the time, the mayor was optimistic that a settlement was possible. The second call, set up by county Federation of Labor leader Miguel Contreras, got another rejection, this time as Riordan told Jackson he was trying to get a federal mediator.

Although Jackson in recent years has traveled the globe, hopping from one hot spot to another in the role of peacemaker, he carried a lot of baggage into the Pasadena Hilton.

For one thing, he has none of the neutrality considered so important to mediators.

The Chicago-based minister has spent the past months campaigning so hard for Democratic candidates that he couldn't even let a post-strike radio interview go by without getting off a few shots at Republicans.

Jackson also was clearly on the side of the drivers, invited through the intervention of Contreras, Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa (D-Los Angeles), a candidate for mayor, and Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who has been a supporter of Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition since the 1980s.

Jackson, in fact, had been touring Appalachia with Jim Sweeney, head of the AFL-CIO, and other labor leaders when he was contacted by Contreras, with whom he had worked on the janitors' strike. Contreras urged him to come to Los Angeles in time for a rally at City Hall last Friday morning.

There, Riordan and Jackson spoke again. This time, the mayor said Jackson was welcome at the talks. With union leaders agreeing to cover the expenses of Jackson and his staff, his intervention began in earnest.

But with negotiations already close to the breaking point, some wondered whether he was the kind of conciliator the talks needed.

By all accounts, he was.

Working around the clock, holding the parties together with his plea that "we are too close to give up," Jackson proved tireless, physically shuttling between parties too deeply at odds to occupy the same room until there was an agreement.

As it turned out, even Jackson's celebrity turned out to be a bridge-building tool.

From the beginning, he made it clear to both sides that if either went back on its word or walked out of the talks, he would use his access to the media as a bully pulpit to inform the world of their backsliding.

"The difference between me and a federal mediator, the low-profile type, is that I have a profile, a point of view, just as the contentious parties do," Jackson said in an interview Tuesday. "If one party or the other is stonewalling, I am fully capable of interpreting to the world what they are doing. No group has the right to walk away with so much public service at stake."

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