By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
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By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
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By Dennis Romero
|Photo by Jack Gould|
At the next meeting of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), local president Neil Silver will, one assumes, have the good sense not to lead his members — the mechanics who service the MTA’s buses — in a chorus of “Solidarity Forever.” Not after he announced this Monday that they would cross the drivers’ picket lines to report back to work. And surely not after his members repudiated Silver’s Cain-and-Abel unionism by continuing to stay off the job.
On Monday afternoon, Silver, who heads the ATU local that had been honoring the drivers’ pickets, abruptly declared that his 1,860 members could cross those lines if they wished. If the strike weren’t settled within a week, he said, he reserved the right to take his members out again — though you’d think he’d know that his members couldn’t be yanked around like so many yo-yos. If he didn’t know that Monday, he certainly did by Tuesday, when a scant eight of his members, by the MTA’s own count, reported for the morning shift.
Silver’s stunning about-face, in which he was joined by Oran McMichael, a staffer for a different local representing 500 of the MTA’s supervisory workers, was quid for Gray Davis’ quo. On Saturday, Davis signed a bill by state Senator Kevin Murray that required any new transit district carved out of the MTA to honor the existing union contracts — in effect, blocking any cost savings that such a district could achieve. The hopes of the privatizers and secessionists who were itching to set up a San Fernando Valley district were dashed; the fears of the MTA employees who knew that working for the Valley meant a hefty cut in pay were dispelled.
For which Gray Davis wanted a tangible display of gratitude. Late last week, his representatives told James Williams, general chairman of the drivers’ United Transportation Union, that he wouldn’t sign the bill unless he got a guarantee that the drivers would return to work immediately. Williams was suitably appreciative of the offer to stop the balkanization of the bus lines, but his members were still being asked to work a 13-hour day for 10 hours’ pay, and he didn’t feel he could lead them back with the board still insistent on that kind of concession. Besides, the strike seemed to be picking up support. On Friday, most of L.A.’s black and Latino elected officials and a number of leading African-American clergymen turned up for a rally backing the drivers. The county workers, themselves on the verge of a strike, released a poll showing Angelenos siding with the drivers over the MTA board by a margin of 69 percent to 17 percent.
But Davis signed the bill anyway — because the capos of the mechanics and the supervisory workers, unions not themselves confronted with demands for unpaid overtime and more vulnerable than the drivers to the effects of a new transit district, had discreetly agreed to bring their members back to work. And for the following two days, a curious asymmetry stymied all attempts to settle the strike. Silver neglected to tell the drivers’ that his members were going back, while the Governor’s Office let Mayor Riordan and the county supes in on the little secret that worker solidarity — or so Silver told them — was about to shatter.
The eagerness of the governor’s fugelmen to share, very selectively, their news explains one of the mysteries of the past weekend: why Richard Riordan viewed the governor’s signature of the transit-zone bill with equanimity if not outright enthusiasm. Riordan, after all, has been a longtime champion of breaking up the MTA into autonomous low-cost, low-wage districts. His law firm, Riordan and McKinzie, successfully defended the most prominent such district, the Foothill District of the San Gabriel Valley, against unions suing to get their old wage rates back. On average, Foothill pays its most senior drivers somewhere between $8.50 and $9.30 an hour — just about half the hourly rate for the most senior drivers at the MTA. Riordan has long argued that the proper level of transit expenditures was closer to Foothill’s than it was to the MTA’s. (Then again, Riordan has also long contended that no one can afford to live in L.A. who makes under $10 an hour, but apparently he exempts bus drivers from this rule.)
On Friday, the mayor sent Davis a letter imploring him to veto Murray’s bill. On Saturday, Davis did precisely the reverse.
Yet there was Riordan, bouncing happily around the Pasadena Hilton (site of the negotiations) on Saturday afternoon, telling the press that “To me, it’s a fait accompli. It’s done.” No expressions of regret or discontent, just a prediction that the talks would soon wrap up. For he knew what was lurking round the corner for the drivers. A source close to the negotiations says that Davis’ personal emissary to the talks, state Department of Industrial Relations director Steve Smith, “told the MTA board on Saturday that the mechanics were going back to work. There’s no question in my mind,” he adds, “that the parties would have reached an agreement over the weekend if not for the governor’s staff telling the board what was coming. What incentive did they have to come to closure? The drivers were about to be sandbagged.”