Negotiators for the MTA and the bus drivers union stepped back from the brink of a strike early today and agreed to a 24-hour extension of their contract talks, averting, at least temporarily, a walkout that would strand many of the system's 450,000 passengers by shutting down bus and rail operations.
Talks in Pasadena between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the bus drivers union sputtered throughout Thursday. The MTA is negotiating new contracts with three unions representing 6,800 bus and rail operators, mechanics and clerks, but the talks Thursday were focused on the drivers. The mechanics didn't even participate in face-to-face meetings.
But a late-night series of proposals and counterproposals brokered by Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, cast just a strong enough ray of hope on the negotiations to keep the talks going past the 12:01 a.m. deadline set by the United Transportation Union, which represents 4,300 bus and rail operators. The extension was announced at 12:10 a.m. today.
Gov. Gray Davis was among those urging the MTA and the unions to resolve their dispute without a strike that would shut down the nation's second-largest bus system.
"These issues are resolvable if the parties commit to serious negotiations," the governor said in a statement Thursday. "The people of Los Angeles should not be subject to gridlock and lack of public transit because of intransigence on both sides."
Earlier in the day, MTA managers presented what they called a comprehensive offer to the United Transportation Union, which represents the drivers.
The offer represented a full contract, but still contained a controversial provision for a four-day week designed to dramatically curtail overtime pay.
Under the plan, the drivers would be paid for 10 hours, but would have to work split shifts that would require them to be on duty for 13 hours on each of their four working days. They would not be paid overtime, but would get three-day weekends instead. The three unpaid hours of each working day would be spent in preparation for their next run or on breaks.
The proposal for longer days with no overtime was part of a package of proposals to rescind what the MTA managers call "outmoded and antiquated" work rules.
The drivers union, sources said, made a counterproposal that offered an alternative to the four-day week.
When that exchange failed to provide any traction for the talks Thursday evening, Goldy Norton, a spokesman for the bus drivers, acknowledged that the two sides were so far apart that it would take a "miracle" to avert a strike.
Getting Ready to Walk Out
As the talks went on, bus driver union coordinators got their strike assignments, gathered picket signs and prepared to wait for orders.
Meanwhile, commuters and other transit agencies began bracing for the walkout.
To help fill some of the gaps that would be caused by an MTA work stoppage, Metrolink, the commuter rail service that runs trains into downtown Los Angeles from Ventura, San Bernardino, Riverside and Orange counties, said it would add eight trains to serve the San Fernando Valley.
"We're trying to pick up the slack a little bit," in the event of a strike, said Metrolink spokeswoman Claudia Keith.
But, in the event of a strike, Metrolink's passengers would arrive downtown at Union Station, and--like other transit riders--face a challenge getting to their ultimate destinations.
Should a walkout occur, the MTA plans a shuttle service from Union Station to MacArthur Park, but it will accommodate only 8,000 of the 22,000 passengers who normally take Metrolink trains into and out of Union Station.
"It's very limited bus service," Keith said.
The MTA had hoped to be able to contract with two private bus operators to run a "lifeline" schedule of 100 buses along five of its busiest routes, should a strike be called. But that plan ran into trouble when the Teamsters Union said its drivers would honor any picket lines set up by MTA unions.
"We are going to do everything we can to help [the bus drivers]," said Jim Santangelo, president of the Joint Council of Teamsters.
With the Teamsters balking, the MTA warned passengers that "no Metro Rail and virtually no [MTA] bus service will be available" if the unions walk out.
In any event, commuters will continue to be served by other municipal bus lines that traverse Los Angeles. Among them are Los Angeles' DASH services, Foothill Transit from the San Gabriel Valley, and lines serving Santa Monica, Long Beach, Torrance, Burbank, Culver City, Glendale, Gardena, Santa Clarita, Pasadena, the Palos Verdes Peninsula, Montebello, Monterey Park and Norwalk. Orange County Transportation Authority buses also will run regardless of the MTA drivers' decision.
But these bus companies said that in the event of any strike, they will stick with their traditional routes and not try to fill in for MTA buses.