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Keeping MTA in Driver's Seat

Transit agency's chief negotiator has earned a reputation as tough, reserved and focused. But some say she can be rigid and controlling.

October 19, 2003|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

She's a no-nonsense executive, known for her unflappable demeanor and reserved, button-down ways.

As the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's chief labor negotiator in the transit strike, Brenda Diederichs has emerged as a tough, behind-the-scenes power broker staunchly defending her agency's turf and coolly facing down rough-and-tumble union leaders.

A scene at the Sheraton Suites Fairplex in Pomona, where negotiations are being held, offers a glimpse into her personal style and how it differs from her outspoken counterpart from the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277. The local's president and chief negotiator, Neil Silver, walked into the hotel restaurant and spotted Diederichs already lunching with MTA staffers.

"Oh, god, there she is," Silver said.

Diederichs looked up but no hellos were exchanged. She made no comment about Silver, calmly glanced down and resumed talking with her staff, as if nothing had happened. Silver led the union members to a far corner of the restaurant. It was classic Diederichs -- polite and always in control.

"Brenda is calmest when things are hottest," said John H. Williams, senior labor relations representative for the MTA.

When union negotiators across the bargaining table pound their fists or scream profanities, she has been known to look at her watch or give a slightly amused smile. Once, when a labor official persisted in berating her, she announced in a business-like tone: "This is not productive. We'll negotiate when you're ready to negotiate." Then she walked out.

Diederichs, an MTA loyalist who began her career as a low-level employee in 1980, is well-liked and respected in the top circles of the transit agency.

"I have total confidence in her," said MTA Chief Executive Roger Snoble. "She has the ability, the skills, the background to do this job."

But others who have sat at the negotiations table with Diederichs say she also can be unreasonably rigid, with a controlling approach that doesn't work well when give-and-take is required.

"In contract negotiations, you look for a problem-solver," said James Adams, president of Local 3634 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the MTA supervisors' union that reached a contract agreement with the transit agency last year after an excruciating 22 months of negotiations.

"The parties should be willing to sit down and resolve their issues. Ms. Diederichs, her initial impression at the bargaining table is, 'This is what we have, you deal with it.' She can be very hard-nosed. She won't bend," Adams said.

Petite and bookish-looking, Diederichs, 46, is a stark contrast to the mechanics' longtime union chief, Silver, the boisterous, brash-talking former New Yorker.

"I consider them to be North Pole and South Pole. They see things through different glasses," said Ray Huffer, division chairman for the MTA's communications workers union. "They don't get along very well. Their personalities get in the way."

The negotiations' dynamics and how Diederichs is perceived, others say, might be complicated by gender relations in her dual fields -- transportation and labor relations -- both of which are dominated by men.

"The undercurrent here is, nobody wants to be sexist out loud. There's a woman in a position here where she's invading the old boys' network," said Bart Reed, executive director of the Transit Coalition. "She's very powerful, and they're not comfortable with it."

Despite her patrician bearing and sometimes icy image, Diederichs' roots are decidedly blue collar. Her mother was a nurse's aide; her father a sewage plant worker and a union member. The eldest of five children, she was the first of her family to attend college.

Diederichs was born in Long Beach, raised in Minnesota and returned to Southern California when she was in high school. She joined the MTA's predecessor, the Rapid Transit District, as a personnel analyst after studying political science and public administration at Cal Poly Pomona. Within two months, she was promoted to manager. She joined the transit agency's labor relations group two years later and attended Loyola Law School at night while she worked.

Diederichs left the transit agency in 1990 and began working as a labor attorney. She was hired back as a negotiator by the MTA during the 2000 bus drivers' strike, when she won her colleagues' respect for remaining focused, cool-headed, organized and polished -- not a hair out of place -- even after grueling round-the-clock negotiations.

Soon after joining the MTA's negotiation team, she quelled the animosities that had been raging between the two sides by focusing on the issues, one after another, as if going down a checklist.

"Before we got Brenda ... we were spinning our wheels and not getting anywhere," said Goldy Norton, spokesman for the bus drivers' union.

Union and MTA officials credit Diederichs for helping break the deadlock to end that strike.

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