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New Voices in MTA Strike

November 10, 2003

The Los Angeles bus strike is about to enter its fifth week. L.A. County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who chairs the Metropolitan Transportation Authority board, and MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble, convinced that they are winning the public relations war, refuse to budge from their final offer, which striking bus mechanics overwhelmingly turned down Friday. The losers are still the 400,000 mostly low-income residents who have been kept from jobs, schools and doctor appointments while the MTA board and the union are locked in this stubborn test of wills.

Both sides have to give. Writing in a Times op-ed article last week, Edmund D. Edelman, a former county supervisor and former MTA chairman, and Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a professor of management and public policy at UCLA, pointed the way.

Earlier in the strike, Neil Silver, head of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, offered to send the mechanics back to work if the MTA would submit to binding arbitration, in which both sides agree in advance to accept a solution from an independent arbitrator. The MTA should have leaped at the offer -- on condition that binding arbitration be used in all future negotiations, thus ending a pattern of strikes that has shut down public transit virtually every three years.

But the MTA has spent years fighting a federal consent decree regulating its bus service and is too wary of outsiders to see the long-term merits of such an agreement. Instead, Yaroslavsky and Snoble say they want to break the union "culture" behind the once-every-three-year strikes. Their harsh rhetoric -- blaming union members for "sweet deals," for example, which the MTA board after all agreed to -- has only angered the strikers and created bitter feelings that will linger for years.

Edelman and Mitchell held out a compromise: If the MTA couldn't abide the "binding" part of arbitration, could it agree to an arbitrator whose decision a supermajority, often two-thirds, of the board could reject?

Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn supports arbitration. So does City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa. Both are members of the MTA board but, along with two others, were barred from participating in negotiations because they had received campaign donations from unions. Villaraigosa challenged the ban as a misinterpretation of state law. A court Friday lifted the ban, and the new voices on the 13-member board promise a new tone in the debate, starting this morning with a special board meeting.

Other leaders -- from Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to Cardinal Roger M. Mahony -- also need to speak out and pressure both sides to arbitrate or settle. The bus riders whose lives are upended by this strike have no one else to speak for them.

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