How the Transit Strike Was Settled

Democrats Take Los Angeles Bus Strikers for a Ride

by Charles Walker

When Los Angeles public transit officials demanded that bus drivers and others take a cut in annual pay, allow part-time workers at cut-rate wages, make work-rule concessions, and cave in to demands for privatization of parts of the giant metropolitan transit system, the 4,400 workers had no choice but to hit the bricks. After 32 days the strikers ended their walkout, which began September 16. They virtually unanimously ratified a three-year contract that their union tops recommended.

But fewer than half the strikers voted. Apparently, the strikers were not given a copy of the new agreement before voting. In fact, their union scheduled the ratification meeting to convene the same day the negotiators announced they had reached a tentative settlement.

Reportedly, the contract provides raises totaling 9.3 percent over the three-year period and adds 330 part-time drivers and 55 full-time drivers to the number forced to work 10-hour shifts without overtime pay. At the current 3.5 percent annual rate of inflation the workers’ real wages will fall. The press has not disclosed full details of the changes agreed to at the bargaining table. But it’s clear that at least some workers will have their annual pay reduced, at least some part-timers at lower pay rates will be allowed, and the privatization scheme will go forward.

Since the strike was against a public agency, the transit workers shouldn’t have been surprised that politicians played a major role in the dispute. However, they may have been taken by surprise by the anti-worker role the politicians played. Surprised because undoubtedly many of them had voted for some of the anti-worker politicians at the urging of their union leaders, as well as other leaders of the Los Angeles union establishment. As early as July, the workers may have been caught off guard when California’s governor, Democrat Gray Davis, asked Attorney General Bill Lockyer (also a Democrat) to get a judge to issue a 60-day injunction prohibiting a possible strike. The injunction was ordered, and a Davis spokesman declared: “The governor is obviously pleased that the courts have responded” in line with his wishes.

The Associated Press (July 6) reported that Davis’s motivation for turning his back on his union supporters was that a walkout during the Democratic Party convention “could prove politically embarrassing for Davis, a Democrat who has endorsed Vice President Al Gore.”

Still another Democratic politician, County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who also chairs the transit board, said that her concern was balancing the transit district’s budget, and demanded that the workers make the concessions and return to work. Then Governor Davis announced that he had signed a union-backed bill that protected existing union contracts in the event that smaller transit districts are broken off from the present metropolitan district. Little or no emphasis was given to the fact that the so-called protection was limited to four years, and that the smaller districts could then take on the divided workforce, one group of workers at a time.

In return for Davis signing the bill, the mechanics and supervisors union leaders agreed to tell their members to cross the picket lines and return to work. Neil Silver, head of the 1,860-strong LA local of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), was quoted as saying, “We thank the governor for doing everything he could to resolve this strike. If there is a picket line, it will be crossed.”

A Davis representative said the governor wanted “to extend his appreciation to both the ATU [mechanics] and the AFSCME [supervisors] for being willing to go back to work.” The press reported that the mechanics’ ranks were “stunned” by the order to cross the lines, and the order was “creating widespread anger within union ranks.” One mechanic told the LA Times, “We’ve been told for years you never cross a picket line, so I’m here to support the drivers.”

The mechanics refused to cross the picket lines, delivering what the LA Times called “a stinging public rejection of their union’s president’s request that they return to work.” Another mechanic said, “Everybody feels he sold us out. We don’t want any backdoor deals.” One driver noted with satisfaction, “The tree has been split apart, but the roots run deep and are healthy as ever.”

At that point it had to be clear to the authorities, as well as the union officials, that the ranks were hanging tough and could not be split apart, even after missing four weeks pay. That point was reinforced when the ranks unanimously voted down a “last, best, and final” contract offer that Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke and her cohorts offered directly to the ranks, ostensibly bypassing the union leadership.

Clearly, something else was needed to get the strikers back on the job. That something else turned out to be Rev. Jesse Jackson, fresh from the Gore-Lieberman campaign trail. Jackson was asked to join the bargaining as a mediator by Miguel Contreras, president of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. Jackson predicted a settlement in three days.

Almost eerily, his “prediction” was on the money. On the third day Jackson said, “We had just about given up after all night long, then we were awakened this morning by some angel that blessed us out of somewhere with a fresh start, a fresh idea and we shared it with the MTA [company] leadership.” “I think,” Jackson said, “there must be some balance between labor, business, the government and customer service. All four must win.”

But since the strikers did indeed make give-back concessions on annual pay, part-time workers, and privatization, Jackson has no right to say that the strikers won. Hopefully, more than a few workers will ask themselves: Why should they make concessions? After all, the strength and unity of their picket lines was evident, as was widespread support from other workers, both organized and unorganized. The transit workers need to find out what went wrong, and make changes, or else more concessions are inevitable.

Clearly, what went wrong has a lot to do with politics and the so-called “friends of labor” in the Democratic Party. That’s not to say that the Republicans are a reliable alternative to the Democrats. The Republican mayor of Los Angeles and the Democrat county supervisor, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, were as thick as thieves in their bipartisan assault on the strikers.

The betrayal by the Democrats was obvious as early as July, when Governor Davis got the anti-labor injunction. Still during the strike, union officials brought Democratic Party candidates to the union rallies, where the would-be vote-getters shamelessly made the same routine pretensions of loyalty to workers that Davis, Brathwaite, Jackson, and so many other Democrats just as routinely forget when workers are fighting bitter struggles.

Knowingly or not, the union leaders, by relying on such false “friends,” are cultivating the seeds of the transit workers’ next defeat.

October 19, 2000