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Bus strike means a hard road for the working poor

Their struggle to get to jobs underlines Orange County's disparities.

July 10, 2007|Tony Barboza, Ashley Powers and Christian Berthelsen | Times Staff Writers

Before sunrise Monday, his job running a sewing machine on the line, bus rider Andy Lee had little choice but to start walking. The 40-year-old walked from Anaheim to Garden Grove. He walked for so long he stopped for breakfast. By 8 a.m., he had been walking for more than two hours -- with several miles still to go.

"Maybe I'll have to buy a bicycle," said an exasperated Lee, one of the thousands of desperate Orange County bus riders who responded to the first workday of the county's bus strike by carpooling, bicycling or begging for rides.

Though bus drivers, who are seeking higher wages, walked out Saturday, it took the workweek to begin for the strike to deliver its wallop. Folks struggled to commute. Workers scrambled to find rides. Sensing profit in some people's misfortune, enterprising motorists transformed their vans and trucks into bootleg taxicabs.

If anything, the bus strike, which shut down about 60% of the county's routes, highlighted Orange County's yawning gap between its wealthy and working class, between the haves and have-nots.

Many of the Orange County Transportation Authority's 225,000 daily riders are telemarketers, fast-food workers, maids, landscapers and machine operators trying to eke out a living in a county whose median home price in May -- $635,000 -- was the highest in Southern California.

Two-thirds of county bus riders are Latino, about one-fifth are white and 72% don't own a vehicle, according to a 2005 OCTA ridership survey. About half said they had annual household incomes of less than $20,000 -- about $45,000 below the county's median.

"Public transportation here is really a fringe element of society," said Paul Stowell, 44, who was heading to a job interview Monday on one of the few operating bus lines. "You have the poor, the handicapped and people who lost their license."

On Monday, transit and union officials both used the wage gap to jockey for the public's backing.

Just as an OCTA press release said the agency was trying to offset a "major disruption" in its riders' lives, union leadership countered with its own plea to the working poor:

"Currently, many drivers already qualify for housing assistance, and the board's current offer only makes matters worse. OCTA wants to create poverty wages that are not in par with the cost of living in the region."

County bus drivers last walked off the job in December 1986. That two-week strike ended after transit officials threatened to fire about 700 strikers -- who protested to the tune of Christmas carols -- days before the holiday.

This time, dozens of drivers waved signs that said "On Strike" or "Union Yes" outside a bus yard in Garden Grove. Amy Wilkerson, a union shop steward, said labor leaders were worried that drivers -- whose average age is 48 -- would be hit hard in retirement by healthcare costs.

"We feel very much for our passengers, but it's not about them," she said.

Negotiations between Teamsters Local 952 and OCTA resumed Monday, with federal and state mediators shuttling between the two teams. Two issues other than salary had halted talks: how that pool of money should be divvied up among workers and whether money budgeted to cover medical insurance costs but not needed would continue to supplement the drivers' pension.

"We want to make sure all of our coach operators are compensated fairly," said OCTA Chairwoman Carolyn Cavecche. "We have offered a very fair compensation package."

Under the recently expired contract, a bus driver's hourly wage ranges from $13.72 to $21.42, with top drivers pulling in about $60,000 a year. OCTA has offered a 13% increase for the three-year contract, but drivers are seeking 14%, saying their old agreement failed to keep pace with inflation. About half the drivers live in Orange County, about 10% in Los Angeles County and the remainder in the Inland Empire, union officials said.

The union hopes to concentrate raises among the more senior of its 1,100 drivers -- a reward for allowing officials six years ago to boost new drivers' pay. Transit officials, however, want to spread the raises more evenly -- a necessary step, they argue, to woo drivers to a county with a high cost of living.

"We're not against having higher starting wage or money going to junior people," said Patrick D. Kelly, the union's secretary-treasurer. "But we have to keep our commitment to the group, the senior people who bit the bullet six years ago."

Another sticking point is funding for the drivers' pension. Historically, OCTA used the leftover employee medical insurance money to augment it. But this year, the authority proposed changing the way that money is paid out, and labor leaders balked.

The drivers were set to strike in May, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got a court-ordered injunction, which expired at midnight Friday.

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