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Three Ways Out of Strike for MTA

November 16, 2003|Kurt Streeter | Times Staff Writer

As the Los Angeles transit strike drags into its second month, a short list of scenarios has emerged for the next phase of the impasse.

Negotiators for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its striking mechanics union are no closer to agreement on the core issues of health benefits and pay, both sides say.

But the tenor of the discussions has changed in the past week, with the MTA simultaneously taking a defiant stance, including the threat of bringing in replacement workers, and suggesting for the first time that it is open to help from an outside mediator or arbitrator.

"I think the conflict is at a fork in the road," said Raphael Sonenshein, a Cal State Fullerton political science professor.

"One fork, which involves things like privatization, heads toward a broader labor dispute that could have untold long-term consequences," he said. "One fork would just be having this thing drag on and on until we see who has the upper hand.... Then there's arbitration, the fork that leads to both sides working toward a common ground."

The strike, which began Oct. 14, has snarled traffic and left hundreds of thousands of people a day looking for new ways to get to schools, hospitals and jobs in Los Angeles County.

By late October, the MTA had declared an impasse and told Neil Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, that he should allow his members to vote on the transit agency's "last, best and final" contract offer.

Silver obliged, but the mechanics overwhelmingly voted down the offer Nov. 7, the same day that a judge allowed Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and two other labor-friendly MTA board members to return to negotiations. They had been barred because they had accepted campaign contributions from the union.

Participants on both sides of the dispute and outside observers say the combination of the union vote and the return of Hahn, City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow and county Supervisor Gloria Molina has injected new energy into the discussions.

The next official meeting between the two sides is scheduled for this afternoon. Barring a sudden reconciliation, here are three MTA strategies considered most likely.

Agree to Arbitration

Bringing in an outside party to help solve the conflict has been an option since Silver called for binding arbitration in late October. The transit agency immediately rejected the idea, but has since shown some willingness to consider a modified, nonbinding form of outside assistance.

In binding arbitration, the strike would end while the union and the MTA presented their positions to a panel of outside experts. The experts -- probably retired judges or lawyers -- then would craft a new contract that both sides would be forced to honor.

Because both sides stand to lose in binding arbitration, there is a tendency for both parties to submit contract offers that move toward a middle ground, said Daniel Mitchell, a UCLA professor and labor expert.

"There are risks involved," he said, "and it is because of those risks that settlements get reached."

Though Villaraigosa and Ludlow have championed binding arbitration, most of the 13-member MTA board is opposed, arguing that it would be foolhardy to give up control of its $2.7-billion budget to an outsider.

On Wednesday, the MTA board announced that it would ask the union to go back to work while accepting nonbinding arbitration.

Under the MTA's proposal, a three-person panel of arbitrators would draft terms on the conflict's primary sticking point, health-care benefits, but both sides would have an out. The MTA board would be able to turn down the panel's terms with a 60% vote. The union could also reject the deal.

Silver said he was intrigued by the offer and was giving it serious consideration.

"There are still a lot of questions," he said last week. "But we are trying to work something out."

Among the unanswered questions are whether the union would have the right to strike again if neither side could agree to a settlement and how much the MTA would pay into the union's flagging health-care fund during arbitration.

Labor expert Chris Cameron, a dean at the Southwestern University School of Law, said the nonbinding form of arbitration could end up working, simply because it would create dialogue between two sides that have not talked for weeks.

"The longer they talk, the more likely they will work something out," Cameron said. "Once the two sides are talking, that sort of takes the wind out of the sails in the dispute. For one thing, people who have gone back to work in something like this, they don't want to go back on strike."

Impose Contract Terms

Ever since it declared an impasse and made its last offer to mechanics, the transit agency has had the option to unilaterally impose a labor contract, try to force workers back to their jobs and hire replacements for those who do not come back.

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