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Deal May End Bus Drivers' Strike

Labor: Tentative agreement would resolve 25-day dispute affecting 20,000 students. Union vote is expected Sunday.


Negotiators for striking school bus drivers and their employer, Laidlaw Education Services, reached a tentative agreement late Friday night that could have buses rolling by Monday, ending a 25-day strike that has disrupted the lives of 20,000 children in the Los Angeles Unified School District.

The breakthrough came unexpectedly after the county's top labor leader, Miguel Contreras, and L.A. schools Supt. Roy Romer intervened early Friday and urged both sides to come back to the table after a week of silence.

Both sides said privately that Contreras' intervention and his threat Friday to publicly and financially attack Laidlaw and the school district if a settlement wasn't reached quickly was the magic bullet.

Talks started just after noon at the Biltmore Hotel. The outlines of an agreement were reached shortly before 8 p.m. All sides emphasized that details remained to be worked out this weekend, but union officials were planning to submit the deal to their membership for a vote Sunday.

Central to the agreement was what one union official called "a creative and technical compromise that will be difficult to explain" that dealt with health care.

Bus drivers had sought a broad expansion of health insurance coverage eligibility; before Friday, Laidlaw wanted the status quo.

The compromise, said officials on both sides, would be designed to reduce employee costs in stages, while expanding their coverage over time.

Negotiators agreed to a salary increase that Laidlaw long had offered. After arguments over pension contributions, both sides agreed to the status quo on that issue.

In addition, both sides agreed to submit some still-sticky details to arbitration and to pay bus drivers a "longevity bonus" that could mean cash awards to longtime drivers.

Participants declined to discuss details of the settlement, but Romer said the school district had given no financial considerations or promises to Laidlaw as part of the deal.

Ron English, director of human relations for Laidlaw, said, "We're happy to have this labor dispute over."

The beginning of the end of the strike came during a late lunch Thursday between Rick Middleton and Contreras. Middleton, head of Teamsters Local 572, which represents the bus drivers, had sought the intervention of the county Federation of Labor for more than week.

At the lunch, Contreras agreed to provide just that.

Contreras then hastily arranged a dinner meeting with Romer at a downtown restaurant.

Meeting just after 7 p.m., they agreed to call both sides back to the table Friday, with Contreras pushing the union and Romer bringing Laidlaw.

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