Los Angeles Transit Workers Strike

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Saturday September 16 8:55 PM ET

Los Angeles Transit Workers Strike


By ROBERT JABLON, Associated Press Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) - Bus drivers hoisted picket signs under the scorching Southern California sun, and riders scrambled for other transportation Saturday as a transit strike expected to affect as many as 450,000 of Los Angeles County's poorest residents began.

The contract dispute with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority left only a handful of buses serving a 1,400-square-mile area. Several suburban municipal bus lines expanded their service to downtown Saturday, but their routes reach only a tiny fraction of riders.

Maria Koujamanian, 46, sat at a bus stop for more than an hour Saturday before learning about the strike and realizing no bus would come. She ended up paying $20 for a taxi ride from Hollywood to the downtown Men's Central Jail to visit her boyfriend.

``I can't afford it,'' she said. ``I'm a nanny. I live day by day.''

Three unions representing 6,750 MTA drivers, clerks and mechanics walked out of negotiations Saturday at one minute after midnight, and no new talks were scheduled.

MTA board chairwoman Yvonne Brathwaite Burke released a statement Saturday asking the union to resume contract talks.

``The MTA calls upon the bus drivers' union to get our employees back to work and to get back to the bargaining table,'' she said. ``The MTA management is empowered to negotiate and is ready to resume negotiations immediately.''

Contracts with the United Transportation Union, Amalgamated Transit Union and Transportation Communications International Union expired June 30. The waiting period imposed by Gov. Gray Davis to avoid a strike during the Democratic National Convention ended Friday.

The two sides disagree over work rules, wage and benefits increases. The MTA offered 2.7 percent raises per year for three years; the unions wanted 4 percent per year. The MTA dropped its proposal for a four-day, 10-hour work week, which had been a major point of contention. The union had argued it would amount to forced, unpaid overtime.

The strike idled 2,000 buses as well as Metro Rail commuter lines. Authorities had planned to keep five routes operating with private contractors, but Teamsters union members are honoring the strike and refusing to comply, MTA spokesman Gary Wosk said.

``The public is out of luck,'' he said.

Only about 7 percent of commuters in Los Angeles County use public transit, but those who do often have few alternatives. Sixty-eight percent have household incomes under $15,000 per year, and nearly three-quarters of bus riders are black or Hispanic, according to the MTA.

Latrice Gamble of Los Angeles said she relies on the bus to take her 9-year-old daughter to school and to shop.

``I need that bus. That's my means of transportation,'' she said. ``They shouldn't inconvenience people this way.''

Drivers sympathized.

``We feel bad, because some people have got to get to hospitals and things like that,'' said driver Jose de Freitas, wielding a picket sign outside MTA headquarters. ``But we've got to protect what the other drivers have fought for.''

De Freitas scoffed at MTA contentions that the average driver earns $50,000 per year and can make an additional $20,000 in overtime. He earns $18,000 per year, de Freitas said. The ''$70,000 guys'' have 20 years of seniority and work seven days a week, he said.

The MTA says it must cut costs. It averages $98.66 per hour to run a bus, 50 percent higher than for some other county transit agencies, the MTA said.

The California Department of Transportation said road maintenance and construction will be suspended during morning and evening peak commute hours during the strike.

-- (hmm@hmm.hmm), September 17, 2000

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