by Ty Moore, ATU Local 1005 Member

On November 18 the third largest transit system in the country began to move again. For 35 days Los Angeles buses and trains were brought to a standstill by 2,800 striking transit mechanics, organized in the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1277, and the transit drivers who refused to cross their picket lines.

While the local politicians who make up the L.A. Metro Transit Authority (MTA) unleashed a public relations barrage to fault the transit workers for the strike, in reality, the blame belonged to the MTA’s provocative efforts to unload rising healthcare costs onto the backs of mechanics. For years L.A.’s transit workers and bus riders have been locked in battle with the MTA to prevent them from de-funding the system.

In a dramatic display of workers’ power, the strike paralyzed the sprawling city. The dispute left half a million daily riders, most of them transit dependent, scrambling for alternatives. Tens of thousands were forced into hours of commuting by foot or bicycle. The young, the old, and the disabled were left imprisoned in their homes for a month. Retail outlets, employers, schools, friends and family all felt the pain.

With characteristic arrogance and disregard for L.A.’s working-class people, the MTA appeared intent on breaking the strike by simply refusing to negotiate. After all, MTA officials were still receiving their six figure salaries. The strike actually saved them a month’s worth of operation costs. The only thing they were losing was public support.

But the power of public opinion and the threat of a voter backlash proved decisive especially because LA Mayor James Hahn sits on the MTA board. The tide turned after the MTA demanded the union vote a second time on their contract offer, hoping to undermine ATU Local 1277 President Neil Silver. On November 7, mechanics responded with a resounding 1,267 to 87 vote to reject the offer and continue the strike. After that, Mayor Hahn moved to organize a compromise, agreeing to the idea of non-binding arbitration.

The strike ended in a stalemate. While the mechanics won a 7% wage increase by 2006, the central dispute over the MTA’s attempt to unload rising health care costs onto employees remained unresolved. A jointly chosen three-person arbitration team will attempt to develop a compromise proposal to be agreed upon by both sides. However, unless union leaders prepare for another strike, this could result in a rotten compromise for the mechanics.