And in the African-American community most of all, for, like the Irish a century ago, blacks are employed disproportionately by the public sector. The striking local of the United Transportation Union — the drivers union — is 49 percent black and 35 percent Latino. That is why black leaders have rallied to their defense, why state Senator Kevin Murray authored the bill (currently sitting on Gray Davis’ desk) that would require any new transit districts carved out of the MTA to honor existing union contracts; why Herb Wesson, in his pre-mediator days, and Danny Bakewell showed up at the union’s rally last week. That is why Yvonne Burke is the one supervisor who feels some obligation to settle the strike.
Robert Poole of the Reason Institute argues that the root problem for the MTA is that the drivers hold a monopoly over transit services within the district, but when it comes to eliminating all competition, the drivers can take a lesson from the supes. With supervisorial districts in Los Angeles now grown to encompass nearly 2 million people, the cost of campaigns has become prohibitive. And with no limit on the amount of money a county contractor can donate to a supe, an L.A. County supervisor, once elected, cannot seriously be challenged, let alone replaced, save in the event of direst scandal. During the primary elections last March, all three supes standing for re-election were unopposed.
In short, nothing remains to prompt the supes to settle this strike save their own sense of decency. And decency was so strikingly absent in their dealings with another group of county workers and clients earlier this month — that is, home-care workers and their patients — that the supes’ nonresponse to the MTA crisis should come as no surprise. While every other California county that had recognized its home-care workers was able to offer them health coverage and an hourly raise of at least $1.25, here in Los Angeles — where 74,000 home-care workers had voted to form a union last year in the largest unionization campaign in the U.S. in 60 years — the supes denied them their health coverage and offered them a measly 50-cent increase, to $6.75 an hour.
It’s tempting to think that L.A. supes are simply meaner than their counterparts across the state, but more likely those other supes are more responsive to public need simply because they occasionally have to face contested elections. County Measure A on the November ballot, which would expand the L.A. board from five to nine members, could actually restore some measure of accountability to L.A. County government. In the wake of the “nonevent” of the MTA shutdown, the L.A. County Federation of Labor is considering funding a major campaign on Measure A’s behalf. ’Bout time.
As with the supes, there’s a structural reason for Riordan’s indifference to the toll the strike is taking: In his case, it’s term limits, which mean he will not face the voters again. But even term limits cannot fully explain the cluelessness and callousness of the mayor’s insistence on completing his tour de France while L.A.’s poor were compelled to trudge across town. The problem, rather, is that the mayor has lost his political compass: attorney Bill Wardlaw. The rift between the mayor and his longtime consigliere, which began over Wardlaw’s refusal to support the mayoral candidacy of Steve Soboroff, whom Riordan is backing, is increasingly forcing the mayor to rely on his own political judgment. No more frightening scenario for Los Angeles is imaginable.
Compelled to think for himself, Riordan had already spent the past several months refusing to believe that the Justice Department would go through with its insistence on forcing the city to implement the Christopher Commission reforms that have languished for the past nine years. Compelled to think for himself, Riordan went into the transit talks evidently convinced he could force the union to make concessions, and without Wardlaw at his side, he had no back channel to Contreras to seek a settlement after his frontal assault had failed. The Riordan we’ve seen in the past couple of months is reminiscent of the Riordan who, in his pre-mayoral days, restructured Mattel by tossing hundreds of workers out of their jobs. We’re seeing Riordan without Wardlaw — a creature more of impulse than calculation, a public figure with no feel for public sentiment, a political leader who, left to his own devices, could never have been elected mayor.
For its part, the UTU seems at times as hapless as the mayor. It has gone into the strike having neglected to cultivate either political backing or community support (it is fortunate that the County Fed has both). It provided no numbers to refute management’s misleading claims about the district’s labor costs. In the end, all that the UTU members really have going for them is the public’s sense that Los Angeles shouldn’t be trying to diminish its already shrinking middle class by cutting the incomes of its bus drivers. That’s not much of a strategy, but it may be just enough for them to squeak by.