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Commentary

Things Aren't Really Better on the Bus

September 15, 2000|ERIC MANN | Bus Riders Union leader Eric Mann is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles and the author of "A New Vision for Urban Transportation" (Strategy Center Publications, 1998)

Four hundred thousand daily bus riders--lower-income black, Latino, Asian and white--are transit-dependent in this city. Most of the bus riders are poor, some disabled or elderly; many are service workers in the hotel, restaurant and domestic fields. Who cares about them? Certainly not the MTA.

The MTA has made clear its intent to cut costs, literally out of the hide of the bus drivers.

It already has broken much of the drivers' union's wage structure by paying drivers with seniority $21 an hour, while part-time drivers make less than $11, even though some work up to 30 hours a week. As one driver told me, "They have already stolen our future. As soon as the rest of us $21-an-hour workers retire, they will have a low-wage work force."

The MTA is demanding that drivers work four 10-hour shifts, while forfeiting their right to receive time and a half overtime for any hours worked after eight each day. The MTA already has the right to schedule workers for 10 hours or more, but they have to pay time and a half for all hours over eight in each day. If the agency does not want to pay overtime, it can restrict workers to eight-hour shifts, but it shouldn't both schedule overtime and not pay for it.

Worse, the MTA already imposes what I call "captive shifts," forcing drivers to be available for 10 hours a day but only guaranteeing eight hours of paid work. Under the MTA proposal, the drivers would be held captive for 13 hours a day--for example, from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m.--but only guaranteed pay for 10 hours with no overtime.

Labor's battle for an eight-hour work day was fought and won years ago. Captive labor and unpaid overtime are reactionary and should be illegal.

But perhaps more important, the MTA doesn't want to run a regional, coordinated transit system for the 9 million people in L.A. County. It proposes creating privately run transit systems--balkanized zones in which each local fiefdom will fight for its share of the spoils. Mechanics and drivers who work in those areas fear that they will be replaced by lower-wage nonunion workers.

The Bus Riders Union fears that if the MTA has its way, it will be even more difficult to monitor a hard-won consent decree to develop a coordinated transit plan that provides new service to hospitals and job and educational centers. The MTA, after promising to expand bus service in the consent decree it signed to settle a federal civil rights case brought by organized bus riders, recently announced plans for massive bus cuts. This current contract conflict is just another effort by the MTA to cannibalize the structure it has been mandated to protect. Instead of paying drivers a higher wage and providing better service, what the transit agency wants to do is privatize other bus lines and provide low-wage drivers to low-cost, low-quality private transit operators.

And how ironic it is that after the MTA told the federal court it had no funds for the bus system, it took more than $1 billion in new-found money to build three rail lines at the expense of bus service. This is the racism and class bias of MTA financing--feast for the rail system and the contractors; famine for bus drivers and riders.

The drivers' jobs are stressful and difficult. They work in hot, overcrowded buses. Thanks to the MTA's constant violation of the consent decree's overcrowding standard, on many buses there are 43 people sitting and just as many standing, a babble of languages, kids with boom boxes, elderly people who are hard of hearing, blind people, people in wheelchairs, all yelling at the driver and yelling at each other. These riders are our members, a feisty bunch trying to make the best out of a bad situation the MTA has placed them in.

The drivers have never, as a group, marched or fought for the Bus Riders Union's demands. My support for them is based on fairness, not any dreamed of reciprocity, let alone solidarity.

Yet the Bus Riders Union stands behind the drivers. The MTA should abandon its onerous demands and not strive to punish drivers or riders. If the agency is really so short on funds, it can begin by taking down its bogus billboards that claim, "Things Are Getting Better on the Bus."

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