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MTA Game Plan

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.

Indeed, the two most serious cases that have been made for scaling back the drivers’ pay — an op-ed piece in the Times by 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.” (Willing is 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 Times nor 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.

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.

The supes may not have been at the table, but they have at least been in town. The same, of course, cannot be said for Richard Riordan, for whom MTA stands for Mayor Traveling Abroad.

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.

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