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Apprehension Shadows Pickets Walking the Line

October 17, 2003|Joel Rubin | Times Staff Writer

Dressed head to toe in denim and with his white hair slicked back, Dave Diehl leaned his sizable, 66-year-old frame on the wooden handle of an "On Strike" sign as he fit a Marlboro cigarette beneath his handlebar mustache.

A 23-year MTA veteran, the bus mechanic stood off to the side and watched Thursday morning as a group of younger union members walked a tight circle in front of a gated bus maintenance yard downtown chanting, "No Contract, No Work!"

"Every morning, every bus has to get onto the streets," Diehl said proudly, gazing through the gate toward two buses in need of his air-conditioning expertise. His is a "good job," he said, but after three previous strikes he believes strongly he wouldn't have it without the efforts of the union.

As union leaders and MTA officials passed the better part of Thursday deciding whether to talk to one another, nearly 7,000 transit workers spent a third day on strike, many picketing at MTA facilities throughout the city. Largely left in the dark on negotiations, they said, the workers spent another day imploring passing drivers to honk in support and wondering among themselves how long it would be until they return to work.

Workers interviewed at several locations Thursday were quick to lash out against an MTA administration they portray as greedy and unwilling to compromise, but also repeatedly expressed a love for their jobs as well as concern about how the loss of pay during the strike would affect their families.

At a yard on South San Pedro Street in the shadow of the Santa Monica Freeway, a group of about 15 mechanics and drivers took a break, lining up at a barbecue for some chicken. "Tough work," one driver half-joked as she put her sign down in favor of a plate.

Passing on lunch, mechanic Robert Morris and his younger brother, Frank, stood on the curb pumping their fists and signs in the air at passing drivers. Many honked in support, while a few made it clear they disagreed.

"Hey, to you too, buddy!" Robert Morris shouted back at a driver who offered a particularly rude hand gesture.

The brothers echoed the concern of many on the picket lines that while these first days are full of camaraderie and joking, the longer the strike continues the harder its toll on their families.

"We got paid today, but that's it," Frank said nervously. "I got two kids and Christmas coming up, come on."

Robert said he, too, worried about making future mortgage payments and paying bills, and he fumed at MTA leadership that he said is unfairly portraying workers as unreasonable. Coming from a previous job where he paid $400 a month in health insurance, he said the current fight over medical benefits is crucial.

Mechanics union members pay no more than $6 a month for health benefits. The union has agreed to pay more for its health care, but is striking over the amount of the increase and control of a fund that provides the insurance.

A few yards up the street, Randie Diep, 30, offered considerably less energy to the line as she leaned wearily against a tent pole, half-heartedly holding a picket sign. A part-time bus driver earning a little more than $14 an hour, Diep left Vietnam as a 3-year-old and offered a different perspective.

"I come from a place where if you did this, something would happen to you," she said.

Diep said she worried about how she was going to keep food on the table for her young son. Like other strikers, she said she has been turned away at interviews for temporary jobs because employers know transit workers will leave when the strike ends.

"I'm very scared," she said. "I've got nothing saved."

Across the Los Angeles River on North Mission Road, a few workers paced slowly in front of the entrance to the Division 10 yard.

"It's the slow part of the day," explained mechanic Joe Soto, as he shaded his face with his picket sign.

Soto said he believed the strike was unnecessary and a ploy on the part of union President Neil Silver to strengthen his own chances of reelection. Although crossing the picket line was out of the question, Soto said, he hoped Silver's perceived plan would backfire.

"If this gets him out, then it is worth it," Soto said.

Pointing at his mountain bike resting against a wall, Soto said he has been riding to the picket line from his Pico Rivera home to counter the stress that comes with striking.

"You get burned out. It can get you down," he said.

Back downtown, the seasoned Diehl sighed as a tool retailer pulled up to collect his weekly payments from mechanics, who must purchase their own equipment.

A few payments behind on the $8,000 that he estimates he owes, Diehl told the man how much he could afford that week -- an amount readily accepted with a sympathetic smile.

"Now, that's how negotiations should go," he said.

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