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LABOR UNREST

MTA Talks Still Not Moving, but Officials Say Deal Is Doable

October 18, 2003|Caitlin Liu and Monte Morin | Times Staff Writers

A new round of talks aimed at ending the county's crippling transit strike moved as sluggishly as a freeway traffic jam Friday, despite assurances from Metropolitan Transportation Authority officials that an agreement could be signed this weekend.

"We want to wrap this up and get an agreement Saturday night -- at the latest by dawn on Sunday," said Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who also serves as chairman of the MTA board of directors. "We can wrap this thing up within the next 36 hours."

Yaroslavsky was one of several top MTA officials who convened at the Sheraton Suites Fairplex in Pomona for the second day of renewed contract talks with the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277. The union's 2,200 mechanics walked off the job over health benefits Tuesday, bringing the MTA's fleet of buses, subway trains and light rail cars to a halt.

Although Yaroslavsky arrived with a suitcase and an armful of pressed shirts on hangers -- an indication that he was hunkering down for heavy talks -- a union spokesman complained that the two sides had yet to meet face to face over a conference table.

Neil Silver, president of the mechanics union and its chief negotiator, said he spent most of Friday waiting for MTA negotiators to complete contract talks with agency drivers, who are not on strike, but are honoring the mechanics' picket lines. Those contract talks are occurring in the same hotel, down the hall.

"We want to go back to the table to negotiate in good faith, but I haven't seen them," said Silver, who threw open the door to a conference room to reveal a large table surrounded by empty chairs. "Do you see any MTA officials in that room?" he asked. "This is the union that's on strike. I guess there's no urgency to settle the strike."

The MTA said there was a good reason why it was focusing on the other union Friday. "We're working it this way because we've got momentum and we don't want to give that up," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble.

It wasn't until the early evening Friday that negotiations between the MTA and mechanics resumed. The talks recessed for the night a few hours later.

The strike has left more than 400,000 commuters scrambling for alternative ways to get to work and school or left them stranded at home. MTA officials say the strike is costing the county economy $4 million a day. City officials, including Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn, were instrumental in urging the parties back to negotiations.

"Please resolve this quickly," Hahn said at a news conference Friday. "We are in a crisis here that needs to be resolved.... It was devastating three years ago to have a 32-day strike. We cannot afford to have it happen again."

The mechanics union and the MTA have been clashing for 17 months, and mechanics have been without a contract for a year.

The MTA and the union are at loggerheads over administration of the union's health benefits. The MTA is seeking greater control over the union's $17-million health insurance fund, which is funded almost entirely by the transit agency. MTA officials also want union members to pay more for their coverage, charging that union mismanagement of the fund will bankrupt it in a matter of months.

Union leaders say they would be willing to give up partial, but not complete, control over the health insurance fund and that they would agree to an increase in the amount of money union members contribute to the fund. Mechanics now pay no more than $6 a month, and union officials say they could go as high as $70 a month, but MTA officials say that is too little money to replenish the fund.

Although there was little maneuvering around the negotiating table Friday, there was plenty of legal and political movement outside the conference room.

While Snoble and Los Angeles County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who is also an MTA board member, appeared alongside Yaroslavsky at a morning press conference on the talks, two Los Angeles City Council members were in court attempting to gain entry into the negotiations.

Councilmen Martin Ludlow and Antonio Villaraigosa filed a lawsuit Friday against the MTA, asking the court to order the agency to lift its ban on their participation in negotiations with striking workers.

The two council members, along with the mayor and County Supervisor Gloria Molina, are MTA board members, but are barred from taking part in talks because they have received campaign money from the union.

Ludlow and Villaraigosa are arguing that the county counsel is basing that decision on an erroneous interpretation of a state law that was intended to prevent corporations from corrupting the board, not prohibit board members from negotiating with their employees.

"We're very frustrated and disagree wholeheartedly with the interpretation the county counsel has made," Ludlow said, standing in the morning heat on the steps of the Los Angeles Superior Court building.

"We believe that we need to get these talks rolling," Villaraigosa said. "We believe that we need to participate."

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Times staff writer Jessica Garrison contributed to this report.

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