Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter
“The political establishment of Los Angeles — the MTA board — treats this strike as an inconvenience,” L.A. County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras insisted last Friday, during a break in the negotiations at the Pasadena Hilton. “Nothing more. An inconvenience.”
Contreras’ frustration was understandable. He’d been trying to get the MTA board members — chiefly, Mayor Riordan and the county supervisors — to take an active role in the negotiations, but not one had so much as entered the hotel, let alone the deliberations. He’d then endeavored to get them to agree upon a mediator, but his suggestion of former Supervisor Ed Edelman had been shot down by Edelman’s onetime colleagues and successors. When I saw Contreras, he was waiting for a conference call with Supervisor Chair Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg, MTA capo Julian Burke and the mayor to discuss appointing Assemblyman Herb Wesson as a de facto mediator. The logistics of the call, and of the proceedings generally, weren’t made any easier by the fact that the mayor was still biking his way merrily through France.
So Contreras was entitled to a bit of hyperbole in his assessment of the MTA board last Friday. One week later, however, it’s become clear that, if anything, he was understating. For the board, bashing the union has eclipsed all thought that anyone may be suffering because the buses are off the streets.
On Monday, after meeting with the opposing parties, Wesson, along with Steve Smith of the state Department of Industrial Relations, presented a proposal to Yvonne Burke that she seized upon as the first glimmer of a resolution to the strike. Her fellow board members, though, were furious — less at the substance of the proposal than at the fact that it was Wesson, rather than the union, who was presenting it. Wesson’s mistake was that he had cut Jim Williams, president of the United Transportation Union (UTU), more slack than the board members thought he deserved. Williams, they insisted, needed to make a concession directly, rather than through a mediator. “He doesn’t want his fingerprints on it,” one board member said, “but we need that if we’re going to use the proposal as a starting point.”
Other than the board members’ cumulative loathing of Williams, it’s hard to fathom why the authorship question should have proved the sticking point — but it was in fact only the beginning of their descent into stark civic madness. Clearly, they were also furious with Burke for her eagerness to wrap things up. Burke, said one of her colleagues, “didn’t represent our true feelings” about the need for the union to be seen as making concessions. “Yvonne is out of step with the rest of the board.”
Thus the board, which had dragged poor Herb Wesson into the deliberations on Friday, effectively booted him out on Tuesday — not only rejecting his proposal but questioning his honesty in having depicted it as his own. (Wesson’s “not ready for prime time,” said one of Burke’s colleagues.) As I write, negotiations have broken down and the strike seems certain to go into its third week. This is all very distressing to those Angelenos who ride the buses to work or school or the doctor’s office. It’s all very distressing to those Angelenos who, while not bus riders themselves, actually worry about the poor. “The break-off of talks,” said Cardinal Roger Mahony on Tuesday night, “is devastating news for all of us in Southern California.”
To Burke’s elected colleagues on the MTA board, however, the continuing shutdown of the nation’s second largest transit system not only isn’t devastating; it isn’t even news. “Look,” says one supervisor, “from our point of view, the worst is over. The strike is a nonevent. We’re not getting any calls on this at this point, or any letters. It’s a nonevent, except for the transit-dependent.” Oh, them.
This isn’t the way a strike in the public sector normally unfolds. Usually, there’s some line of communications between management — which, in the public sector, means elected officials — and the unions that may contribute to their campaigns and walk precincts for them. In this instance, however, we have a union that doesn’t really play much of a role in elections. Then again, there’s not much of a role for them to play, since many of the elected officials on the MTA board haven’t really had to stand for re-election in years.
Usually, there’s some pressure on public officials to restore needed services to the public. Transit users in L.A., however, are disproportionately poor (68 percent of them have annual incomes under $15,000) and noncitizens — not people who send letters, or checks, to the supervisors and the mayor.
Public agencies don’t usually try to extract concessions from workers in the middle of a historic boom. That’s the ultimate mystery that the MTA board members have yet to explain: why, in a time of rising incomes and revenues, they are asking L.A.’s bus drivers to take a substantial pay cut. The system, they insist, costs far more than its counterparts, although a hard look at its counterparts suggests that it doesn’t. The culprits, they insist, are the drivers — though they can’t quite bring themselves to say that the drivers are overpaid, for fear that no one would take them seriously.