In the strike between 13 MTA board members, chaired by Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky on the one side, and 2,000 striking Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) mechanics fighting to retain their health benefits on the other, there are 500,000 bus riders whose daily lives hang in the balance. These are hotel, restaurant and domestic workers, security guards-the $6 to $10 an hour workers who are the backbone of the economy who must beg rides or pay cab fares, to keep their lives moving. The elderly and disabled are prisoners in their homes, and the public school students fight to get to school or be marked truant, now joined by striking grocery workers trying to get to their picket lines. Just yesterday, a young black man who lives on 160th and Crenshaw told us that he had to start his new job near the Farmers Market in the Fairfax district, but had just put his beat up car in the shop in the hope that his new salary would allow him to take it out. Instead, with no public transportation and no ride, he walked four hours to his new job.
MTA feigns concern, but it is MTA management that has taken a vindictive bargaining stance against its mechanics, with the low-income bus passengers as their hostages As reported, the MTA is offering a 3% to 5% total raise over a four year contract. With any level of inflation, this is a pay cut plain and simple. The MTA wants its mechanics, who prior to the strike paid $6 a month for medical care, to pay even more than the $70 a month per employee (a loss of $840 a year) that the ATU says it is willing to concede. This in a country that has no national health care system, leaving many workers to work for their medical "benefits." The MTA has just agreed to add more money to the union health fund, but apparently is demanding a hard cap on its payments while health care premiums will continue to rise, meaning the union members will have to pay the difference. The MTA focuses on cuts and concessions while the mechanics are asking for virtually nothing to improve their conditions.
The MTA has millions of reasons to provoke this strike in that each day it can shut down bus and rail service, the agency makes more than $1 million in "profit." It’s still collecting state sales taxes and federal grants while it does not have to pay for mechanics, drivers, and fuel.
Tragically, some on the MTA don’t care if their customers ever come back. In fact, in a perverse logic, they feel they would benefit if they never do. The MTA, under a federal civil rights Consent Decree signed with the Strategy Center and Bus Riders Union, is compelled to purchase additional buses to reduce overcrowding when it exceeds an overcrowding limit (an average of no more than 8 people standing on a 43 passenger bus). But the MTA, already having been forced to buy 2300 new Compressed Natural Gas buses over the last 7 years to modernize its fleet, adamantly refuses to buy any more, even though the system is still too overcrowded. (A federal judge, the Special Master for the Decree, will rule in the next months as to exactly how many additional buses the MTA has to purchase.)
By forcing the strike, MTA will permanently lose 3% to 5% of its passengers who will be forced to take other forms of transportation, such as buying old, gas guzzling cars which will further pollute the environment, and who won’t come back once the strike is over. Instead of reducing overcrowding by purchasing more buses and increasing public transit ridership, the agency attempts to evade its contractual obligations by driving people away from public transportation altogether.
At the heart of this strike is not the $10 million or so in dispute with the mechanics, but MTA’s warped funding priorities. The majority of the MTA board prefer to build high priced, boondoggle rail projects like the Pasadena Blue Line (after construction elevated to "gold line" status because it cost $871 million for just 14 miles of construction). No wonder the average subsidy for suburban rail riders is $10 per ride, while for low-income, minority bus riders it is less than $2. The MTA feeds its rail obsession by commandeering resources from the bus system, planning to cut 196,000 service hours just this year, raising the price of the monthly bus/rail pass from $42 to $52 a month beginning this January if not reversed (which, the MTA admits, will drive away another 2% to 5% of its riders per year), and raising health care costs of its workers. If the MTA board had 500,000 members of their own family on the buses, would they allow this strike to continue? If the MTA, with an annual budget of more than $2.5 billion, had a key rail construction project delayed in a fight over ten million dollars, would they not pay the price and move on with their objectives? To fully understand how much disdain MTA board members have for their workers and passengers, one has to attend monthly MTA board meetings to see the way they dismiss, insult, and even attack Black, Korean, Latino, and elderly white bus riders who challenge their views. This combative stance sets the board up as rulers, not servants, of their most vulnerable customers and dedicated workers. MTA board member Mayor James Hahn is the latest to feel their wrath, as his conciliatory proposals to encourage mediation and reach out to the union and take the riders’ needs into consideration were treated as heresy by the hard liners on the board.
This strike is being run, being driven by MTA Board Chair Zev Yaroslavsky and CEO Roger Snoble, two vindictive men who share two toxic qualities-a desire to squeeze every last penny out of bus riders to fund their plans for a rail empire, and a hatred of any organized force-bus riders, the Bus Riders Union, the drivers and mechanics unions-who they see in any way challenging their authority. They have a heartless type of political personality that can justify inflicting enormous suffering upon 500,000 bus riders, the vast majority of whom have family incomes of less than $15,000. The racism of this policy is quantifiable and palpable, as this is a frontal attack on urban bus riders who are 22% Black, 50% Latino, and 10% Asian Pacific Islander, more than 60% of whom are low-income women and youth. It’s time for the MTA to unilaterally end the strike, to make whatever concessions are necessary to give the mechanics a fair deal and get public transportation rolling immediately.
In the meantime, beginning Wednesday, October 23, and for the duration of the strike, the Bus Riders Union has operated 6 free shuttles in core areas of the city at peak periods of day, trying to provide material aid to thousands and symbolic aid to 500,000. Today alone we picked up more than 300 passengers, but even more, thousands of passengers waved, told us of other friends who needed help, and our drivers were overwhelmed by working class gratitude and a chorus of "God Bless You." We will, as usual, try to do the MTA’s job for them, and pick up as many waiters, hotel workers, students, and lost souls that our resources will allow, until a concerned public-employers, clergy, school faculty and administrators, and the progressive members of the MTA board-can force the MTA board majority and the Yaroslavsky/Snoble cabal, to stop running a government agency like a Walmart wannabe.
The ultimate tragedy of this story is that 13 people, the members of the MTA board, are not even elected to inflict this level of suffering on the people. Five of them, county supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky, Yvonne Burke, Mike Antonovich, Don Knabe, and Gloria Molina, are perched upon fortified castles in 2 million person electoral districts. Four more are the Mayor of Los Angeles, James Hahn, and his three appointees-city councilmen Antonio Villaraigosa, Martin Ludlow, and Tom LaBonge. Four more are elected through the league of cities-Frank Roberts from Lancaster, John Fasana from Duarte, Beatrice Proo from Pico Rivera, and Pam O’Connor from Santa Monica. (O’Connor is one of the most reactionary board members who is strongly supported by Santa Monica city councilman Mike Feinstein from the Green (read Democratic) Party.) who supported the $10 a month increase in bus fares that inflicts additional suffering on riders.)
We need a statewide initiative to create an elected MTA board. This would supplement our existing tactical plan of broad united fronts, direct action, mass media, on-the-bus direct organizing, and civil rights and environmental law suits, to challenge the anti-union and anti-passenger violence of MTA policies. It would be great to force these appointed MTA board members into a context where for once they have to run for the seats they have seized through a coup in the state legislature that created the MTA in the first place, behaving as if they rule with the divine right of kings. Until then, we all have to think through how to organize a revolution against the monarchy, starting by pressuring the MTA board to end the strike now.
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We are asking all who read this email to click on the BRU’s web site at
and send an email to all 13 MTA board members calling on them to end the strike immediately.
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Eric Mann is a veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, Students for a Democratic Society, and the United Auto Workers. Currently, he is the director of the Labor/Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, and a member of the Bus Riders Union. His latest book is Dispatches from Durban: Firsthand Commentaries on the World Conference Against Racism and Post September 11 Movement Strategies (available at www.frontlinespress.com and www.amazon.com )