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No Negotiations in Sight to End Transit Strike

The MTA and union say they're willing to talk but waiting for the other to move. Hundreds of thousands are left to scramble for rides.

October 15, 2003|Kurt Streeter, Jennifer Oldham and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

The first day of a Metropolitan Transportation Authority strike unfolded in slow-motion chaos Tuesday for hundreds of thousands of public transit passengers, who walked, rode bicycles and grabbed rides aboard all manner of alternative transport to get to jobs, shops and school.

Although both sides in the dispute between the MTA and the mechanics union appeared willing to make concessions on the key issue of who should pay for rising health insurance costs, there were no talks and no apparent progress.

"I have no reason for optimism that it's going to be a short strike," said Neil Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 1277. The local represents 2,200 active MTA mechanics and retirees. MTA drivers, supervisors and clerks all honored the walkout, which shut down buses, the subway and light rail lines.

County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, an MTA board member, was more optimistic.

"I believe we can solve this," she said, adding that the issues are far simpler than those of the last transit strike, in 2000, which lasted more than a month. She said this strike "should be over in 10 days or less."

Still, it was not clear when negotiations would resume. Each side said it was waiting for the other to make the next move.

Word of the work stoppage came late to many of the MTA's 400,000 or so daily riders, making the Tuesday morning commute especially frustrating.

"How can they do this?" demanded Joe Hines, who usually takes the bus from Sherman Oaks to Taft High School in Woodland Hills. He heard about the strike only after arriving at his bus stop in the morning.

"What about the people that have to go to school?" he asked.

Morning rush-hour freeway traffic was heavy throughout Los Angeles County, although California Department of Transportation officials said it was not clear whether the strike was the reason. Few of the roughly 11 million people in the county use public transit: Studies show that only about 4% of work trips are made on buses and trains.

Coming at the same time as a strike of supermarket employees and wildcat walkouts by L.A. County sheriff's deputies, the MTA work stoppage added to an overall sense of labor strife. All three disputes center on rapidly rising health care costs.

"First there's the recall, then the supermarket strike and now the bus strike," said Jill Gustafson, who moved to Southern California from Oregon four months ago and was trying to get from her home in Sherman Oaks to her job at a production company in Hollywood. "I'm just waiting for an earthquake."

Gustafson, 29, was waiting for an MTA shuttle on one of the 22 routes run by private contractors. Other riders used cars if they had them, asked friends for rides or hopped into vans that plied the usual transit routes, taking advantage of the strike to create makeshift jitneys.

"Need a ride?" van drivers asked as they slowed near bus stops. The going fare seemed to be about $2 -- somewhat higher than the $1.35 charged by the MTA, and more than double the amount paid by regular riders who buy monthly passes.

Some riders gave up and stayed home, and some businesses suffered as a result.

"There's no one here," said Maria Garcia, a waitress standing gloomily in the doorway of a Salvadoran restaurant downtown with a single customer inside. "I took a taxi here for $12."

MTA executives apologized to riders and responded to criticism that they had failed to warn them adequately. MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble said the union had given the agency little notice of its strike plans.

"After 16 months of negotiations, we had less than 12 hours to react to a strike," he told a news conference. "This is devastating to riders, and we're focused on trying to help them out as much as we can."

Transit officials scrambled to expand bus services operated by private contractors that would connect riders with bus lines run by other cities and transit agencies. Many bus lines run by the L.A. Department of Transportation and other cities in the county will accept MTA passes, as will Metrolink, said MTA Deputy Chief John Catoe. The city department runs DASH buses in several areas.

"These services will not replace the whole MTA system; that's an impossibility, and not what we're trying to do," Catoe said. "We want to get people from east to west and north to south to connect with other services, so there's a basic lifeline they can use."

He added that todaythe MTA would hire more buses operated by private firms. MTA officials agreed, however, that this patchwork of services is not nearly up to handling all its riders.

They said the agency's toll-free commuter phone line had been jammed most of Tuesday, in part because operators had honored the strike, forcing managers and other less experienced employees to staff the line.

Snoble said the agency planned to rely on a mediator who is handling its negotiations with the bus drivers union to work with the mechanics union as well. He added that the MTA was willing to resume negotiations with the mechanics.

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