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MTA, Union Still Far Apart on Major Issues

Mechanics are asking for substantially higher wages than offered. But cost of health benefits, particularly for retirees, is the key sticking point.

November 15, 2003|Sharon Bernstein and Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writers

Hopes for a resolution to the mechanics strike that has crippled Metropolitan Transportation Authority bus and train service appeared dashed late Friday, when the MTA board met for just 15 minutes and abruptly adjourned.

Board members left the Los Angeles County Hall of Administration without talking to the media, and a spokesman for the MTA said that the board would not meet again to discuss the strike until Sunday.

Meanwhile, mechanics union President Neil Silver said he was giving serious consideration to an earlier proposal by the MTA to submit the labor dispute to nonbinding mediation.

"We are going to try to work something out," Silver said.

Silver said he had agreed to attend a meeting Friday with several MTA officials, including board Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky. The parties in attendance could not be reached for comment.

The two sides remain far apart on many issues.

A memo obtained by The Times on Friday showed that the mechanics are demanding substantially higher wages than what the MTA has offered, requesting a pay hike of 10.5% over the life of the three-year contract, plus small cost-of-living increases that have already been agreed upon. The MTA, by contrast, has said it can pay no more than about 3% plus the quarterly increases.

For health benefits, which both sides say is the key sticking point, the MTA has offered to pay about $22.6 million a year for health care for active employees and retirees by 2005, the last year of the contract. The union is requesting about $27.6 million a year in 2005.

Most of the difference involves the cost of care for retirees. The union has requested that monthly contributions for retirees under the age of 65 rise incrementally, reaching $909 by late 2005. The MTA wants to pay $533 a month for their care.

In addition, the union wants $220 a month to purchase Medi-gap policies for retirees over age 65, but the MTA is willing to pay $142 a month.

The memo, which was sent by Silver to MTA negotiator Brenda Diederichs, contained details of the union's demands.

In it, he chided the negotiator, calling it "tragic" that the MTA waited for four weeks before taking a careful look at the mechanics' proposal.

In other action, the transit authority said that it planned to increase its so-called lifeline service over the next two weeks if the strike continues, adding lines that would run free of charge along Florence Avenue, Wilshire Boulevard and Van Nuys Boulevard, and between Pasadena and Hollywood.

The Florence Avenue service will start Monday, and the others will begin in about two weeks if the strike has not yet been settled, said MTA spokesman Rick Jager.

He said the new lines, which will serve about 30,000 people, would be run by independent contractors using about 60 buses that the MTA had recently retired from its 240-bus fleet.

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