May 4, 2004 - From the October, 2003 issue

MTA Chairman Yaroslavsky Expresses Desire For Quick Resolution To Mechanics' Strike

As with the ongoing strike of grocery store employees in Los Angeles , MTA mechanics are none too happy with the health benefits being offered to them in their latest contract proposal. Metro Investment Report is pleased to present this interview with Los Angeles County Supervisor and MTA Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky in which he explains the issues behind the MTA mechanics strike and expresses his optimism that a solution can be reached expeditiously.

Zev Yaroslavsky

Zev, how do you explain the strike by the MTA's mechanics, as well as bus and train operators? Give our readers the context for this labor dispute?

Every labor dispute has its own set of facts. And, while it appears that there is labor chaos in town-and there is-you have to look at each case in order to understand what is going on. This strike should have never happened at the MTA. Nobody at the MTA wanted it to happen. The bus drivers didn't want to go on strike, the other employees certainly didn't want to go on strike, and I don't think the mechanics wanted to go on strike. But the internal politics of the union – with an election for the presidency of the union in November/December – complicated our lives. Otherwise, there isn't any reason we shouldn't have solved this a year-and-a-half ago with the mechanics. I think we will reach an agreement with the bus drivers-we're working on that as we speak.

My philosophy is that it's better to negotiate with a strong union leader than a weaker one, because a strong leader can make a deal. Weaker leaders are always looking over their shoulder-and that's where we are now. Sometimes, union leaders feel they have to go on strike in order to prove to their members that they have done everything they can. They go on strike in order to avert bringing to the members a deal they don't want to sell. That raises the level of anxiety and frustration among the members to the point where they will, on their own, accept a deal that they wouldn't be able to settle without a strike. That's the problem.

This is endemic to the MTA. I've been asked,"Why is the MTA always facing strikes?" The reason is that for the past 25 years, every time unions went out on strike, they got what they wanted. Last time in 2000, they didn't get what they wanted. Most of the labor organizations learned a lot from that-as we did. Both sides have learned more about each other. I would like to give credit to the bus drivers for staying at the negotiating table-they haven't walked away. The bargaining is hard, but the bus drivers are still there at the table. The mechanics should be staying at the table as well, but that hasn't happened.

Every labor dispute has specific issues, in addition to contextual issues. What are the key and remaining issues that still create space between management and labor-as we go to print?

As with everybody right now, our biggest issue is health insurance. To some degree, wages and retirement benefits also are at issue, but the common thread here is health. We're putting a lot of money on the table for health. The package we're offering at the MTA is a richer package than any other public agency is offering to any of its employees. The county is not offering its employees what the MTA is offering. The state is not offering its employees what the MTA is offering. The city isn't. What we're trying to do is refocus everyone's expectations on what is realistic. This is an unprecedented time of fiscal crisis. The state has wiped out $1.9 billion in funding for the MTA over the next six years. We're not in the position to do a lot. Some people feel that we have offered more than enough. A number of people think we've offered too much. We have certainly offered more than anyone in the public sector is offering, and that should count for something.


How is this strike going to end? What is your prediction as we speak?

I just can't predict. There's no reason that we shouldn't be able to resolve this in the next day-and-a-half, just as we should have been able to solve it in the past year-and-a-half. But, we haven't resolved it. If we don't solve it in the next couple of days, this could go on a while. Next week, this will go to a different level. Public frustration is going to be ratcheted up and we're going to start going public next week with explanations of exactly what is going on. We're going to be talking to the members of these unions, too. It's in everyone's interest to get this wrapped up this weekend. I don't know how optimistic I should be about it. I would be more optimistic about all of the other unions except for the mechanics, because of their internal political situation. It's going to take a lot of pressure and a lot of moderating their expectations to get them to agree, and I hope they do. We're going to do everything we can., but I wouldn't bet a lot of money on a quick settlement.

The board of the MTA is made up of local officials, almost all of whom are Democrats. How is it that there is a division here between management and labor, given the similarity of interests?

There's division between management and labor, and there also is division between the majority of the board and two of its members, who have taken up the labor side of the cause. Three years ago, we had a very pro-labor board. This is a board that is made up of people who have been aligned with labor, including myself for my entire public career. Consider that we have on the board, among others, Yvonne Burke, Gloria Molina, Don Knabe (who has more pro-labor votes than any other Republican I know) -its hard to credibly assert that the board is made-up of anti-labor people. These are people who have aligned themselves with labor over the years. Three years ago, when we all unanimously took a stand, it said something. This time, almost unanimously, we also have taken a stand. This should communicate to the union that it has over-reached. There is a limit to what we can do. We are progressive. We are pro-labor. But, we also believe that we must be able to pay our bills. We can't enter into a contract that we cannot afford or sustain over the years. If we do, we'll be taking service off the streets to pay for it, and that's not what we're about. We're about both providing service to the transit-dependent of our region and to trying to increase the number of people who use our public transit service.


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