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Rail News: Passenger Rail

32-day UTU/MTA strike ends


Negotiators had to pull an all-nighter to do it, but United Transportation Union workers finally reached a firm agreement with Los Angeles Metropolitan Transportation Authority, ending the month-long strike.

The final talks began shortly after 7 a.m. (PDT) Oct. 16 and ended nearly 24 hours later with a contract pleasing both sides. MTA’s board unanimously approved it Oct. 17. But the final stamp came Tuesday evening when UTU members ratified the tentative contract by 92 percent at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

"It’s a good contract," says Goldy Norton, UTU spokesman. "It’s unfortunate it took 32 days to get to that point."

But buses finally rolled out the morning of Oct. 18; train service will be restored Oct. 19, after workers electrify and inspect the lines.

As is the case with most hard-fought-for contracts, compromise was the peacemaker. Wage increases aren’t nearly the double-digit percentage UTU fought for — they actually average less than MTA proposed in its "last, best and final offer." Drivers at different wage tiers will receive different wage increases. On average, wages will increase a little more than 8 percent with graduated phase-in. MTA last offered wage increases of 9 percent over the three-year life of the contract.

"We got a decent wage and benefit package," says Norton, adding that the contract increased MTA’s contribution to UTU members’ pension plan and guaranteed current health benefits. "When you can do that, you feel pretty good about it."

Compromise also was reached in the number of part-time drivers MTA will hire. In its last offer, MTA proposed hiring 475 part-time operators. UTU also proposed hiring additional part-timers, but far fewer. The new contract calls for 330 part-timers over three years: 150 in fiscal-year 2001; 100, FY2002; and 80, FY2003.

"We had to give in not so much in work rules, but in use of part timers and Business Development Operating Facility [drivers]," says Norton. "We did it in a way that protected full-time employees."

The arrangement would enable MTA to better schedule drivers to cover peak periods and enable part-time drivers to reach their maximum number of allowed work hours.

"Part-timers were able to work no more than 30 hours [per week], but never achieved that," says Edward Scannell, MTA spokesman.

Because of the focus on peak period coverage, full-time drivers needed to stay on the clock longer to maintain service, he says. That won’t necessarily be the case now.

"There will be some reduction in overtime," says Scannell. "In the spirit of give and take, there are some things the union is pleased with. As a result of the restructuring, there will be no reduction in full-time positions."

But MTA still is under a federal mandate to improve and increase bus service. And, although MTA suspended work on its Blue Line light-rail project, California state legislature Jan. 1, 1999, gave joint powers authority Los Angeles to Pasadena Metro Blue Line Construction Authority the go-ahead to design, procure and construct the light-rail line. When the authority’s provisional governing board completes the project, the line would be operated by MTA. With this growth on the horizon, Norton doubts whether overtime will necessarily be reduced by a large margin.

In some areas, compromises were as detailed as counting minutes. Under UTU’s previous MTA contract, drivers were paid for 20 minutes from the time they checked in for work and inspected the bus to the time they pulled out of the lot. They were paid for an additional seven minutes upon returning to pull the bus into the garage and leave work. Those times are reduced to 13 minutes and five minutes, respectively.

Compromises aside, both sides were in mutual agreement in working to find a way to reduce workers’ compensation costs. MTA’s fleet is half the size of New York Metropolitan Transit Agency’s fleet, yet the western agency’s workers’ compensation costs are six times greater, "which is just crazy," says Scannell.

Under the new contract, UTU and MTA management plan to work together to search for causes — from working conditions to unnecessary claim filing to system abuse or anything else — and come up with solutions.

"[Our costs are] very much out of line with an agency our size," he says.

One strike-resolution factor that can’t be ignored is Rev. Jesse Jackson’s role. Although he supports unionized labor points of view, MTA officials acknowledge Jackson deserves thanks for his presence and assistance in resolving this dispute.

During contract talks, MTA and UTU negotiators would get close to a resolution, then talks would fall apart over and over again, says Norton.

"The easiest thing to do would have been to say, ‘Let’s take a break, get some sleep and come back tomorrow,’" he says. "But [Jackson] kept everybody going. I know we all will be grateful to him for a long, long time."

"[Jackson] was there during the last critical hours," says Scannell. "The unfortunate part about it is we feel it never had to get to this point and take this long. When you have a strike this long and look at the gains of the contract, it takes a long time to realize them."

But, unlike most transit strikes, it likely won’t be long before Los Angeles passengers return to MTA buses and trains; the vast majority of MTA’s 450,000 riders have no choice. In a gesture of appreciation, MTA plans to provide free service until midnight, Oct. 22. September passes will be accepted through the end of October and November passes will be available for sale Oct. 25.

MTA Oct. 19 plans to resume negotiations with Amalgamated Transportation Union, which represents MTA’s mechanics, and Transportation Communications Union, which represents its clerks. Scannell suspects that negotiations with these unions could be easier now that UTU has agreed to a new contract.

"When you have one, it usually sets the tone for the other two," he says. "The others usually end up with a similar package."

Overall, the parties involved claim to be exhausted but pleased with the final result.

"When you do something that works out and you see the smiles on the faces of the workers, it makes you feel pretty darn good," says Norton.

Kathi Kube

Contact Progressive Railroading editorial staff.

More News from 10/18/2000