Mechanical Decency

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.”


And what do we learn from all this about Gray Davis, who from the point of view of the transit unions both giveth and taketh away? Davis has always had a penchant for balancing off the conflicting claims of rival constituencies, business and labor most especially. In the first few months of his term, Davis met privately with the state’s major union leaders, told them exactly what percentage of his victory margin, as he calculated it, they had been responsible for, and that they should not expect him to side with them at a rate significantly higher than that percentage.

But coming up with a general theory that predicts when Gray will support unions and when he will screw them is tricky business. Looking at the bills he signed and vetoed during the past few weeks of end-of-session legislating, you could conclude he supports the ones that give unions what they need institutionally, but not what they want ideologically. And that when big business takes arms against the unions on particular legislation, you can kiss that bill goodbye.

Thus, the governor signed a bill requiring public-school and community-college employees covered by union contracts to pay union dues. He signed a bill forbidding state contractors to spend money on campaigns to thwart union organizing drives, and another that allows firefighter and police unions to go to binding arbitration when necessary. But he vetoed two important bills that benefited no union directly and that the state’s business lobbies fiercely opposed: one that raised the maximum weekly unemployment insurance benefit from its current $230 to a princely $380 over a three-year period, and another that phased in over six years an increase in the maximum weekly workers compensation benefit. He also vetoed a bill pushed by the United Farm Workers, true-blue Davis supporters for decades, that would have made growers responsible for verifying that their labor contractors were licensed. The growers are traditionally among the biggest financial backers the Republicans have in California, but Davis has managed to squeeze megabucks from them during his first 18 months as governor, and is doubtless counting on some more.

It is the quintessence of Davisism, then, for the governor to sign a bill that answers the unions’ prayers contingent on the unions’ giving up their leverage in negotiations. In a single deal, he wins the gratitude of both management and those unions that didn’t need the leverage quite so badly as their peers, and public credit for trying to end the work stoppage. And just maybe — we won’t know until the next campaign contributor filings — some hefty checks from the unions trying to avert an MTA breakup.


For L.A. labor, it’s been a roller-coaster week. On Monday, with Silver’s declaration, it seemed the movement had abruptly reverted to its bad old days, when an injury to one was tough luck, bub. Silver had undermined, if only for a day, one of the signal achievements of L.A.’s new-model labor movement. In the past several years, the County Federation of Labor, under the leadership of Miguel Contreras, has restored a sense of solidarity, of mutual support, long missing from the city’s union movement. This spring, the picket lines of striking janitors were honored by the Teamsters and the Operating Engineers, two unions that previously had expressed no interest in whether the janitors lived or died. Over the past few months, the Fed has convened rallies that brought together doctors, actors, librarians, teachers and hotel maids, all vowing to support the others in their respective struggles. Since the drivers walked, the Fed has frenetically mobilized its member unions on their behalf — a task with which the transit unions, which pretty much keep to themselves, plainly needed the Fed’s help. And on Tuesday, when the mechanics stayed out, Fed staffers were plainly elated that all their solidarity work hadn’t been in vain.

Silver, by contrast, seems a throwback to an earlier epoch of union leadership. In both substance and manner, he comes off as an old-style New York labor boss. He made the decision to cross the lines without putting the question to a vote of his members, who — unlike their employers — had no inkling that they were headed back in. Silver’s a far cry from the kind of terrifying boss you find in On the Waterfront, but he’d fit effortlessly into any production of Guys and Dolls. Two weeks ago, pacing through the lobby of the Pasadena Hilton, he noted that the MTA, while meeting endlessly with the drivers, had passed up the opportunity to negotiate with him. “We’ve asked them to call,” he lamented. “We’ve asked them to write. Yet not a post card have I seen.”


Silver’s manner may be charmingly quaint, but his disdain for democracy has proved utterly — and in this case, happily — dysfunctional. No one was more flummoxed than his own mechanics by Silver’s announcement that they’d be going back in; not a post card had they seen even suggesting that such a course was contemplated. We do not know which sickened them more: the thought of crossing the drivers’ picket line, or being ordered to do so by administrative fiat. No matter. Blessings on them, either way.


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