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MTA Union Leader to Face Election Challenge

November 05, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

Three days before a contract vote that could end the countywide transit strike, a member of the striking mechanics' negotiating team was nominated Tuesday to challenge union President Neil Silver in an election next month.

Tommy Elisaldez, financial recording secretary of Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1277, said he supports the 3-week-old strike but would have managed the union's affairs so that a work stoppage would have been unnecessary.

"If I was president of this union, we would not be in this mess right now," Elisaldez said. He declined to go into detail, saying that he did not want to create dissension during the strike.

Elisaldez, 50, is one of five union board members who have been negotiating a contract with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority since last year. The MTA called off those talks last week, issuing a "last, best and final offer" contract on which union members will vote Friday.

Elisaldez and Silver said it is important that the union stand firmly against MTA management in the current conflict.

Ballots will be mailed to the union's about 2,800 active and retired workers Nov. 25. A vote tally would be finished in early December, and a new president would take over no sooner than January, under union bylaws.

Silver vowed that he would win the election, questioned Elisaldez's motives and accused him of leaking information to the MTA about the union's inner workings.

"It's not a good situation when you have someone on your own team who is trying to stab you in the back," Silver said.

It is widely known within the union that Elisaldez has clashed with Silver over management of the union's nearly insolvent health-care fund, which has emerged as the key issue in the strike. The MTA bankrolls the $17-million annual fund, which the union uses to buy health insurance for members.

Mike Bujosa, a former president of the union who was nominated Tuesday for vice president, said Elisaldez believes that the fund can be better run, keeping finances in check and establishing a reserve, despite rising health-care costs that Silver blames for the fund's troubles.

Aside from his current position on the union's board, Elisaldez is the union's representative on the board of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "He has a totally different style, compared to Neil," said Miguel Contreras, the federation's director, who said Elisaldez is known for his calm demeanor, a contrast to the fiery Silver.

At Tuesday morning's standing-room-only meeting in a downtown Los Angeles union hall, about 400 union members nominated candidates for more than a dozen positions. Elisaldez had sizable and loud support. "We're in a bad position with our health care, essentially because of Neil," said Russ Becraft, a shop steward who works on MTA rail lines. "We need a change. We need Tommy to take over."

But a clear majority of those present appeared to back Silver, who has been the union's president twice, most recently since 1994. "I just respect him for what he has done so far, his history with us ... and I trust him," said Douglas Kurowski, a 19-year MTA veteran.

The MTA has blamed Silver for the ongoing strike, and agency officials have suggested that Silver won't sign a deal because he does not want to be perceived as backing down to the agency.

The nominations took place against the backdrop of the union's contract vote. Silver announced that Friday's vote would take place at the Los Angeles Convention Center, as expected. The Los Angeles City Council voted Tuesday to offer the mechanics free use of the Convention Center, waiving $14,200 in user and parking fees.

Times staff reporters Allison Hoffman and Patrick McGreevy contributed to this report.

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