Indeed, the two most serious cases that have been made for scaling back the drivers’ pay — an op-ed piece in the Timesby Robert W. Poole Jr., of the Reason Public Policy Institute, and a column by Joel Kotkin in the Los Angeles Business Journal — have managed to omit entirely any actual figures on drivers’ pay. Poole asserts that the MTA’s operating costs are from 30 percent to 40 percent higher than those in the smaller suburban districts of Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Valley, since the drivers there “have been willing to accept somewhat lower pay and benefits.” (Willingis not a word usually found in the lexicon of a duke-it-out laissez-faire guy like Poole; I suspect they weren’t “willing” at all, but that their collective-bargaining strength was simply too weak.) For his part, Kotkin asserts that in Los Angeles, “public sector workers, such as MTA operatives and most city employees, enjoy among the highest wages of any such workers in the nation.”
But neither Poole nor Kotkin has the courage to quantify his convictions. Not a single dollar figure appears in either article, since, I suspect, the readers of neither the Timesnor the Business Journal would conclude that drivers who in the year 2000 make roughly $50,000 annually by dint of working overtime are driving the city into bankruptcy. The top hourly pay of drivers in Los Angeles does exceed that in Santa Monica and the San Gabriel Valley, but it lags behind the pay scales in Boston, Washington, New York, San Francisco and San Jose. The hourly cost of operating a bus in L.A. does exceed that in the smaller surrounding districts, but that’s a little like comparing the payroll of a big-league team to that of a double-A farm club. Santa Monica, after all, has just 13 bus routes; Los Angeles has 200.
But the MTA has taken it into its head that reducing drivers’ pay by cutting back overtime is the sine qua non of turning the MTA’s finances around. In an effort to save $2 million by these reductions in overtime, it is demanding that some of its drivers work two five-hour shifts daily, interrupted by an unpaid three-hour hiatus. The MTA board members I’ve spoken with say the problem is that drivers-union president Williams is afraid to make any such concessions, since he is being challenged for the leadership of the local. This assessment merely bespeaks the fact that no supervisor has faced a contested election in years. It’s ludicrous to think that any union leader would bring that kind of proposal to his or her members in a time of general prosperity. This is not a proposal the pope would feel safe bringing to the College of Cardinals.
The real problem confronting the MTA, of course, isn’t driver pay, but the hole into which the district has dug itself by — well, by digging holes. Servicing the debt incurred by building the district’s rail lines, its subways most especially, eats up 13.4 percent of the district’s operating budget, which dwarfs the share it allots its drivers. The MTA’s unionized employees can discourse at length about the district’s edifice complex — about cost overruns on the Red Line and the Italian-marble inlays in the district’s headquarters. During last week’s demonstration outside the marble palace, Wendy Robinson, a dispatching clerk who’s been with the district for 20 years, provided a line-item diatribe against management extravagances. But it’s her own story that poses the greatest challenge to the logic of management’s position.
For Robinson is part of an all-MTA family. Her husband is a mechanic with the district: He’s a member of the Amalgamated Transit Union; she’s a steward with the Transit Clerks Union; and both of them are honoring the drivers’ picket lines. After two decades with the district, Robinson’s base pay is $39,000; by working nights and the occasional weekend, she’s managed to bring home a little more than $50,000 in most recent years. Until recently, the Robinsons and their four children lived up in Lancaster. Now, they own a home in Diamond Bar, a middle-class suburb that’s both a step up and a step in from Lancaster. Their oldest child is a senior at Howard University in Washington D.C.
In short, the Robinsons are exactly what the mayor, the supervisors and every L.A. maven say the city needs most: a two-parent, homeowning minority middle-class family. At a time when the middle has fallen out of the L.A. economy, at a time when households earning between $40,000 and $100,000 have been in decline in Los Angeles while the number of working poor has exploded, you’d think the last thing that public policymakers would want to do would be to reduce the Robinsons’ income.
In the year 2000, rebuilding a middle class in Los Angeles means, first, maintaining income levels in the public sector — for that’s where the middle-class jobs in L.A. are to be found. The decent-paying blue-collar jobs in aerospace and auto and private-sector construction have largely vanished. And in place of Rockwell and Lockheed and McDonnell Douglas, we have the county and the LAUSD and the MTA. Cutbacks by those agencies go straight to the heart of the city’s middle class, particularly in nonwhite communities.