Amid the name-calling and posturing in the dispute that has kept Metropolitan Transportation Authority buses off the road for much of October, an internal Los Angeles County memo reported last week that appointments at clinics and hospitals in the county’s health system are being broken at higher-than-normal rates, and walk-in visits are dropping off sharply. It is one of the crueler ironies of the mechanics’ strike over control of the union’s health-insurance fund that there has been some relief in the long lines at clinics and places like Rancho Los Amigos Rehabilitation Center — only because patients can’t get there by bus.
The county’s financially shaky health system provides care of last resort to tens of thousands of residents who have no access to insurance or cannot afford the increasing premiums their employers are demanding. Union employees, like the 2,000 striking mechanics of Amalgamated Transportation Union Local 1277, are pressing to keep their benefits and avoid the fate of the increasing number of people who must rely on county health care.
While labor strife over health benefits grows around the country, though, MTA officials have been quick to point out that mechanics and the drivers, who are also without a contract and are honoring the mechanics’ strike while negotiating over benefits, have some of the best health benefits offered anywhere in the country and are nowhere close to having to rely on county care. Members pay nothing for their health insurance, and the MTA offer that union leaders rejected does not seek to impose employee premium payments — but it does seek at least partial control over the union’s health fund.
“We’re sick of it,” county Supervisor and MTA board member Zev Yaroslavsky told reporters Monday. “The public ought to be sick of people taking off on strike when they’re paid this kind of money. Fifty thousand dollars or more a year. Some of them making over $100,000 a year.” About a half a million bus riders rely on the nation’s largest public transit system every day to get to work, to reach school, to do their shopping, and to see the doctor.
At issue is not the amount of health benefits offered to the mechanics, but control of the trust fund that pays those benefits. Under an unusual system, the MTA does not pay directly for members’ health plans but instead makes payments to a fund controlled by the union, which then buys health plans for its members. Local 1277 leader Neil Silver has blasted the MTA for trying to gain control of the fund, but the MTA charges that the fund is mismanaged and nearly insolvent. MTA chief Roger Snoble told reporters last week that his primary motivation in seeking more controls is the health of his workers, and Yaroslavsky and other board members have urged the union to come back to the table for the benefit of the stranded riders.
But talks may have been slowed by a structural peculiarity of a money-losing transit operation like the MTA. While union members go unpaid each day they are on strike, the MTA actually saves money. Grounded buses use no fuel and require little maintenance, and the savings more than make up for the lost fares. One estimate put the savings at $20 million each month. The board also is somewhat immune from direct political pressure. Riders’ clout already is muted because so many of them live on the lowest economic and political rungs of Los Angeles society and MTA board members are elected not by riders or county taxpayers but are placed on the board by virtue of their election to the Board of Supervisors or city councils, or by appointment from Mayor James Hahn.
But two of Hahn’s appointees, Los Angeles City Councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa and Martin Ludlow, as well as Supervisor Gloria Molina and Hahn himself, are ineligible to participate in settlement talks under a state law designed to curb improper influence in board decisions. Each of the four has received campaign donations from the union, and Los Angeles County counsel — which also represents MTA — issued an opinion that the four were covered by the strict law requiring recusal if any donation of more than $10 was accepted within the last four years.
Villaraigosa and Ludlow, insisting that the law was meant to apply to contractors but not to labor unions, sued their own MTA, but they lost their bid for an immediate restraining order allowing them to participate. The ruling, from Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Dzintra Janavs, means the board’s most labor-friendly members have no direct role in talks. Meanwhile, Local 1277 made donations to several of the other board members in what critics called an underhanded bid to disqualify them. Silver denied it; the donations were not accepted.
The board need not automatically accept the advice of its counsel on whether the four can participate, but Villaraigosa said he would not ask for a vote on whether to reject county counsel’s decision. “I don’t want to turn this into a circus,” Villaraigosa told the Weekly.
A new hearing on the matter is set for November 7. MTA leaders said they expected the strike to settle by then — but they also expected it to settle over the last weekend.
The grocery strike, on the other hand, seemed no closer to ending this week as both sides continued to dig in their heels. Los Angeles County Federation of Labor chief Miguel Contreras said grocery workers were trying to keep the health benefits they have, not just to keep taking care of their families but also to avoid becoming a burden on the taxpayer-funded county health system.
Meanwhile, a sickout by Sheriff’s deputies over health benefits continued, and county workers who belong to SEIU Local 660 rallied to protect their own health benefits and to protest their lack of a new contract. New actions are in the works for hotel and restaurant workers.
“Who would have thought, 10 years ago, that Los Angeles would be a union city?” Contreras asked. But the County Fed leader also knew that the grocery strike would become more of a challenge to sustain as the holidays grow close — and that labor’s seemingly enormous clout and prestige in California were dealt a blow by the vote to recall Governor Gray Davis and the election of Republican Arnold Schwarzenegger to replace him.
Hahn, Yaroslavsky and other city and county leaders took time out Monday from their talks with, or about, striking workers to dedicate the new Walt Disney Concert Hall, but the strain of the labor strife was evident. Only one person on the stage at the event seemed unfazed. It was Gray Davis, who sat beaming through the 100-degree heat. He may have been thinking that whatever happens with health care and labor unrest, it was no longer his problem.