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Mediation Plan Ends MTA Strike

Service will gradually resume after the two sides agree to let a panel draft a compromise.

November 18, 2003|Kurt Streeter, Sharon Bernstein and Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writers

The Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its mechanics union agreed Monday to settle their remaining contract differences through mediation, ending a 35-day transit strike that has left an estimated 400,000 daily passengers without bus or train service.

A few limited bus routes began running Monday night, and partial rail service on the Red Line subway and light-rail Blue Line was expected to resume this morning. Officials said full countywide service would probably not be restored until Friday.

Negotiators reached a tentative settlement shortly before midnight Sunday after what both sides characterized as several grueling bargaining sessions since Friday.

The agreement was quickly and unanimously approved Monday by the MTA board. It must still be ratified by the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1277, which has scheduled a vote for Wednesday. But union President Neil Silver, who is recommending the deal to his members, urged them to go back to work immediately as a show of good faith.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday November 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 55 words Type of Material: Correction
MTA strike -- An article Tuesday on the front page of Section A about the resolution of the 35-day Metropolitan Transportation Authority mechanics strike incorrectly reported that it was the second-longest transit strike in Los Angeles County history. It was the third-longest. A strike in 1974 lasted 68 days; one in 1976 lasted 36 days.

The key sticking point during more than a year of negotiations, the provision of health benefits for active and retired mechanics, remains to be settled. It will be presented now to a panel of three mediators -- one picked by each side, the other chosen jointly -- who will draft a compromise proposal that can be rejected by either side.

That process could take months, officials said, but both sides said they were relieved that transit workers would be going back to work in the meantime.

The strike, they agreed, had resulted in a stalemate.

"There will be a temptation on the part of everybody to assess winners and losers in this," said county Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, the MTA board chairman. "Let's stipulate right now that everybody was a loser in this strike ... above all the 400,000-plus riders who depend on the MTA.... They have suffered the most. They have had their lives turned upside-down. It has been a disaster for them."

Silver said the strike was necessary because his union needed to fight for health benefits that it contends were being threatened. "I'm sorry the strike happened, but I don't apologize for it. I am glad it is finally coming to an end."

The union administers a $17-million annual health fund, financed by the MTA, that it uses to pay for its members' medical insurance. The fund is nearly insolvent, due to rising health-care costs -- and, in the MTA's view, to poor management.

During the strike, the MTA offered to increase its annual support of the health fund to $22.6 million by 2005, the last year of the contract. The union requested $27.6 million.

Most of the difference involves the cost of care for retirees. The union wanted monthly contributions for retirees younger than 65 to rise incrementally, to $909 by late 2005, from the current level of $533. The MTA insisted on freezing retirees' benefits at $533 a month during the entire contract. The two sides also differed on the size of a contribution for supplemental Medi-gap policies for retirees older than 65.

Silver said that the issue of retiree benefits would probably be the most contentious one for the mediators. "People on fixed incomes," Silver said, "we're fighting for them."

The two sides persisted in calling the upcoming process nonbinding arbitration, although it is much closer to mediation, in which an outside party considers opposing viewpoints and drafts a compromise.

The panel's decision will be nonbinding, meaning that each party in the dispute will have the ability to turn it down by a two-thirds board vote. The union will have the right to strike again if the deal is thrown out.

Los Angeles City Councilman Antonio Villaraigosa, an MTA board member, said he thought that a deal on health benefits could be reached without outside help because the two sides are talking again.

"I said from the beginning that the only way to come to agreement was in face-to-face negotiations," Villaraigosa said. "Now that we have the momentum, I'm hoping we can get the whole thing finished" without arbitration.

The strike began Oct. 14 and essentially shut down the nation's third-largest transit system. MTA drivers, clerks and supervisors honored the mechanic's picket lines, bringing MTA bus, subway and light-rail service to a halt. The strike was the second-longest transit work stoppage in Los Angeles history.

The MTA had proposed giving mechanics a 3% wage increase plus a flat increase of 81 cents an hour accumulating quarterly throughout a three-year, nine-month deal.

While Silver would not comment on the wage package included in Monday's tentative agreement, sources said it includes a 2% wage increase retroactive to 2002, when the union's last contract ran out, and 2.5% increases in 2004 and 2005.

MTA officials, who drew a hard line during the strike and said repeatedly they would not increase their offer, said they were paying slightly more than they had wanted but that they could live with the deal.

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