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Tangle of Causes Fueled Dispute

History, economics and personalities are cited as factors in the mechanics' walkout, even though differences seemed solvable.

October 16, 2003|Kurt Streeter, Patrick McGreevy and Mitchell Landsberg | Times Staff Writers

When it comes down to it, the differences between the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its mechanics' union don't seem that deep. Both sides are willing to make sacrifices. There are no overriding issues of principle dividing them. The money gap -- about $10 million a year out of a $2.7- billion MTA budget -- hardly seems like a deal-breaker.

And yet, the differences are apparently deep enough that 400,000 or more people who rely on MTA buses, subways and trains spent a second day Wednesday trying to figure out how to get around without a functioning public transit system.

Los Angeles labor leader Miguel Contreras was tapped to try to settle the 2-day-old transit strike, and said he would bring the two sides to a hotel, "lock everyone in a room and go at it day and night." MTA officials demurred, saying that the offer would have to come through a state mediator.

A reasonable question might be: How did it come to this?

There is no simple answer, but among the explanations offered by labor experts and officials on both sides of the dispute are:

* Economics: The negotiations come at a time when recessionary pressures are clashing with skyrocketing health-care costs. The result is that the Amalgamated Transit Union faces an unappetizing combination of small salary increases and ballooning medical insurance costs -- a potential net loss for union members. For the MTA, the economics of the strike are simple: Unlike, say, Vons supermarkets, the transit agency saves money by shutting down.

* History: The MTA is run by an ungainly board of political heavyweights, including members of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors, the Los Angeles City Council and Mayor James K. Hahn. That has sometimes led to clashing egos and disparate political pressures, which have been cited as a factor in the county's history of 10 transit strikes since 1960.

* Personalities: The ATU's Local 1277 is run by Neil Silver, a blunt-talking, hard-driving union boss in the classic mold. No union leader wants to preside over give-backs, which is what the health-care issue boils down to, and Silver is loath to lose control over an unusual arrangement whereby the union, not the MTA, runs the fund that purchases health insurance for the mechanics.

Silver agreed to return to talks after a meeting at City Hall on Wednesday with Hahn, Contreras and City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow.

"To get back to the bargaining table and resolve the conflict is an important matter not just for our union members but for the public as well," said Silver, who represents 2,200 active MTA mechanics and retirees. One day after saying that he saw no quick end to the strike, he added that "we look forward to a quick and speedy resolution to this issue."

Not long after he made those comments, MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble said he had turned down an appeal by Hahn to attend a meeting with Silver at the Biltmore Hotel today "That's just not the way we go about doing things," he said. Snoble added that if union leaders want to negotiate, they will have to notify a state-appointed mediator.

Silver and the MTA have been clashing for 17 months, and the union's workers have been without a contract for a year.

Silver has turned down at least four offers during that time, claiming that the MTA was low-balling and insulting his members.

As each month went by, Silver became more agitated.

"The offers I'm getting are just not serious," Silver said in February, one month after his union members had voted to give him the authorization to strike at any time.

Many MTA officials believed that Silver was posturing. "We didn't think he was serious," said one top-ranking MTA official recently, on condition of anonymity. "Not a lot of people will admit it, but this caught a lot of people by surprise. We still can't figure this guy out."

A court order this summer stopped a walkout. The order expired Sunday, but Silver still had to make what he said was a gut-wrenching decision: Strike or keep negotiating. He decided to have his workers walk.

Silver said Wednesday that he decided late Sunday to strike for two reasons.

First, the talks were, in his mind, making no progress. Second, he became incensed at an MTA demand to exert indefinite control over a six-member panel that oversees the union's $17-million health insurance fund, which is funded almost entirely by the transit agency.

"That is what really did it," Silver said. "Even though there was no agreement on a lot of our issues, we could have kept talking. But they overreached when they asked for control of our health plan. It was, one more time, a complete insult. It was a signal to me that they weren't serious, and it pushed this over the edge."

Health insurance is the driving issue in labor negotiations across the country. Health-care costs nationally rose 13.7% last year and are on a pace to rise 15.4% this year, according to the AFL-CIO.

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