By JOANNA BAKER and MICHAEL SCHWARTZ
LOS ANGELES-At 12:01 a.m. on Sept. 16, workers from the United Transportation Union (UTU) walked off their jobs when negotiations with the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) failed to produce a decent contract. Workers immediately set up 24-hour picket lines across LA County.
Although some surrounding cities are still operating their own bus lines, the strike has halted virtually all public transportation in the county.
The UTU represents 4400 bus drivers and rail operators, who provide service to 450,000 passengers each day-the second largest public transportation system in the nation.
In an attempt to minimize the effect of the strike, the MTA hoped to contract with private bus operators to run a “lifeline” service. The plan failed because the drivers for those companies are members of the Teamsters Union, who refused to cross the picket line. The president of the Joint Council of Teamsters said, “We are going to do everything we can to help the bus drivers.” Clerks and mechanics that work for the MTA are also honoring the picket line.
This strike is about the drivers fighting to keep what they have. The MTA wants more work to be done for less pay. Right now drivers are working 10-hour shifts with two hours paid overtime. The MTA has put forward a plan that calls for workers to work 13 hours a day, four days a week, but with absolutely no overtime pay. The drivers would be paid regular wages for 10 hours each day and the other three hours would be unpaid breaks or preparation.
The union estimates that this new pay system would cut average earnings by 15 percent. The MTA also wants to replace full-time drivers with a part-time workforce in order to further reduce costs.
With a debt that reaches $7 billion over the next 30 years, the MTA is trying to portray itself as a helpless agency that desperately needs to cut costs. Tim Weldo, the MTA’s chief negotiator, said the transit agency needs $23 million in savings for rail and bus operations over the next three years. Their plan is to get every penny from cutting “labor costs.”
Mayor Richard Riordan, also chair of the MTA board, said, “We want to get rid of the antiquated work rules that, like a cancer, are destroying our transit system.”
What the MTA doesn’t tell the public is that their debt is a result of billions wasted on light rail projects that only serve a minority of riders, as well as on its new downtown office building-decorated with waterfalls, giant aquariums, and murals-which cost half a billion dollars.
The MTA says that drivers make an average of $50,000 dollars a year and an additional $20,000 in overtime. Mayor Riordan said that “a number of MTA employees make over $80,000 a year.” This is a gross distortion of the truth.
According to The Los Angeles Times, entry-level drivers are only making $8 an hour, and the average worker would need to work 56.5 hours a week to make $50,000 a year. Only three percent of drivers make over $75,000 a year. Drivers we spoke with said they couldn’t make $50,000 even if they worked every day of the year.
An attempt has been made by the MTA and the media to pit the bus drivers and the bus riders against each other. Drivers are also shown as uncaring people who do not care about “poor, minority riders.”
Stories run in The Times about kids not being able to go to school, people missing doctors appointments, and people walking hours upon hours to get to work. Rather than blame the MTA, The Times blames the drivers.
But the riders are not falling for this game. Many have expressed their solidarity with the bus drivers. One person told us, “Everyone knows they need better wages, the companies are always offering less than what the workers really need.” Other riders we spoke to said if they were in the drivers’ shoes they’d be on strike also.
The 3000-member Bus Riders Union, which has 50,000 supporters, are behind the bus drivers in their struggle. They know that the MTA’s claiming to care about poor bus riders is a joke. MTA buses are in terrible condition, and workers we spoke with told us that many buses are unsafe.
A member of the MTA board stated that “if the MTA fails to achieve the savings it needs from the drivers union, it will mean a 20 cent increase in the basic bus and rail fair.” So much for their consideration of the “poor bus riders.”
MTA workers deserve decent wages, benefits, and hours, and safe working conditions.
If you want to help the workers in their fight, call the UTU local headquarters at (626) 962-9980.