Let Them Pick Up Garbage 

A plan for avoiding transit strikes in Los Angeles

Thursday, Nov 20 2003

The Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority’s mechanics should be required to pick up garbage.

No, wait; hear me out. I’m not saying the mechanics’ union bears sole responsibility for the 35-day strike that kept 400,000 of the city’s lowest-paid workers walking for miles at a time or bargaining for back-seat space in some enterprising neighbor’s bandit carpool. I’m not talking about putting mechanics along the freeway in orange Caltrans vests next to the drunks who were sentenced to pick up litter because there was no room in the county jail. I’m saying maybe they should swap jobs with Los Angeles city sanitation workers — so that when they walk off the job next time they will be missed, quickly, desperately, by people who vote.

No doubt they were missed for the last five weeks by the people who need them and, most likely, appreciate them. Bus riders prepare the food, make the clothes, clean the floors, and process the papers in Los Angeles’ service economy, but many of these workers are immigrants who have not yet qualified (or have no hope of qualifying) for citizenship. Many immigrant workers scraping out a living can save up for car payments. But throw in gas, maintenance, insurance, maybe a premium added to the monthly rent bill for garage space, and forget it. Public transit is often their lifeline. And they can’t vote. So members of the MTA board don’t have to listen to them.

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Let the garbage pile up for a couple weeks at single-family homes in tonier parts of town, though, and heads will roll. The narrow sliver of Los Angeles residents who cast ballots are sufficiently empowered, politically and economically, to make their displeasure felt when services falter. This city is legendary for throwing roadblocks between residents and City Hall, but if enough calls come in to the mayor or council members from people who fit the voting profile, City Hall will get the message.


And what about MTA management? Shouldn’t we make board members pick up garbage too? Couldn’t hurt. But it won’t help, either. The agency will argue that in holding the line on pay and in demanding employee health contributions and oversight of the union’s health care trust fund, it was doing its best to safeguard the tax money entrusted to it by the public. But that’s a hard one to swallow. The MTA is built on a heritage of mismanagement, incompetence, and subway contract fraud, and any assertion that no money is left for employee contracts is understandably greeted with dismissive chuckling by union members.

Even if the MTA had more credibility, and even if wealthy lawyers and surgeons and investment bankers commuted in Los Angeles via public transit, as they do in New York and Chicago, it would still be hard to hold the agency’s collective feet to the fire. That’s because the MTA board is made up of county supervisors and mayors and their appointees who are elected to their positions not for what they will do for the MTA and bus riders, but for what ‰ they promise to do with county and city services. Angry voters can’t throw out the MTA board, unless of course they happen to be throwing out the Board of Supervisors and the mayor of Los Angeles.

The Bus Riders Union, an organization that grew out of the political chasm between those who use the buses and those who control them, has long advocated a separately elected MTA board that would be directly accountable to voters. But, again, voters have a puny stake in bus service, and generally don’t get excited about the prospect of adding new elected officials.

There were MTA strikes in 1982, 1994, almost but not quite in 1997, and again in 2000. And then again this year. MTA board chairman Zev Yaroslavsky, a county supervisor, said Monday when a tentative settlement was announced that his colleagues and the union must find a way to end “this culture of triennial strikes.” He had no solutions to offer for now.

The MTA board’s posturing ended when City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow won their suit to be allowed back into talks, overcoming an MTA lawyer’s opinion that excluded them. Perhaps they made a difference not just because they have impeccable labor credentials but because they represent districts thick with transit-dependent workers. No, those workers often don’t vote. But increasingly, their children do. Because of their parents’ hard work, they may go to college, establish lucrative careers, buy homes in Los Angeles, and put pressure on city officials to make sure there is never a garbage strike. When the bus mechanics or drivers strike, though, how will these new homeowners, the sons and daughters of immigrants, react?

Optimists predict they will be part of a new Los Angeles that will respect the struggle of immigrant workers who rely on the bus. It could happen. It could also happen the way it has for decades: Professionals make money, and buy houses, and drive cars, and vote. But they don’t take the bus.

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