The Metropolitan Transportation Authority's mechanics union voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to return to work while a panel of mediators settles health-care issues that led to a 35-day strike.
The vote was anticlimactic, since leaders from the union and MTA announced Monday that they had worked out a deal and union officials had recommended that mechanics return to work immediately.
MTA bus and train service started rolling again Monday evening, and by Wednesday morning all of the transit agency's bus routes and much of its rail system were operational.
Still, Monday's tentative agreement would have been tabled had a majority of the union's rank and file voted against it.
As it turned out, about 85% of 1,355 voting mechanics and service attendants approved the deal, in a vote held at the Los Angeles Convention Center. "We now have a contract," said Neil Silver, president of the mechanics' Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277. "The strike is over, for now."
Silver's caveat referred to the unresolved issue of health benefits, which will be considered by a panel of three mediators in a process that could take several months. If either the MTA or the union's board rejects the mediators' proposal, the mechanics could go back on strike.
The panel will consist of a mediator chosen by each side and a neutral party chosen by the two panelists. Silver said on Wednesday that he would probably be the union's representative.
The trio will decide how much money the MTA should pay into a $17-million health fund that the union administers and uses to pay for members' health insurance. The fund, provided by the agency, is near insolvency.
Wednesday's vote occurred after about an hour of sometimes rancorous give-and-take as Silver stood at a podium and fielded questions. Some mechanics blasted Silver, saying they had gone out on strike over health care and were unhappy that they were going back to work with the issue still hanging.
"We didn't strike for wages, Neil, we were on strike for benefits!" shouted Ken Lewis, a veteran mechanic at a downtown bus yard whose emotion-filled comments drew loud applause. Health care, he said, was "the most important thing ... and we don't have benefits. Why did you cave?"
Silver characterized the new deal, while still incomplete, as "100% better" than the MTA's "last, best and final" contract offer, which the mechanics solidly voted down on Nov. 7.
Under the new agreement, mechanics will get a 7% wage increase in a deal that ends in 2006 and includes retroactive wages for union members.