October 27, 2000


L.A. Transit Strike Forges New Alliances

By David Bacon

LOS ANGELES — For decades, Los Angeles' bus drivers and riders have looked at each other across the fare box with suspicion and distrust.

The Metropolitan Transit Authority consistently told riders that drivers' salaries were behind rising fares. Drivers, in turn, got the message that the only way to keep their jobs secure was to stick it to riders in the fare box.

Yet, the recent 32-day drivers' strike saw drivers and riders forge a winning alliance against the MTA— an alliance that not only won the strike, but marks a shift in the city's balance of power.

L.A. bus riders — overwhelmingly immigrants from Mexico and Central America — are the base of the city's new economy. The buses carry room cleaners in downtown luxury hotels, seamstresses from garment sweatshops, day laborers, domestics and janitors.

A majority of the drivers are African-Americans. Over the last two decades, the closure of L.A.'s steel, auto and tire plants has left thousands of black workers in the street. Driving a bus today is one of the few secure jobs left carrying union benefits and a salary high enough to allow a family to buy a home.

Defending those wages and conditions was an uphill struggle. As one picketer said, "there's a lot of resentment out there against people of color, especially women, making $50,000 a year."

Los Angeles' changing economy has pitted these two sections of the workforce against each other, and many elected officials exploit the consequent hostility. Overcoming this divide in the course of a bitter labor dispute shows a new level of awareness in both communities.

Riders and drivers saw clearly that the pressure to raise bus fares came not from salaries, but from the huge construction budgets for new rail systems bringing mostly white commuters in from the suburbs.

The rail system will promote land development on the city's fringe — good news for the giant firms paid millions to do the work, and the building trades, the old guard of the city's labor movement.

The MTA first tried to cut bus service to pay for rail, but the Bus Riders Union went to court and won a consent decree mandating minimum service levels.

The transit strike started as a battle against MTA efforts to to pay ballooning construction costs by converting hundreds of full-time jobs to part-time, reducing pay to affected workers and limiting overtime.

Underlying these demands was a plan to break up the transit system into autonomous units serving smaller areas — a precondition for turning operations over to private contractors.

As soon as the strike started, the riders' union began organizing big rallies to support the drivers. At the end of the strike, over 850 drivers signed letters demanding no cuts in service.

"There was a radical change in the drivers' attitude towards the riders' union," says Eric Mann, a member of the riders' union planning committee. "In the past, their union relied on an insider relationship with the MTA and saw us as troublemakers. That's not true anymore."

The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor also backed the striking drivers, breaking long-established relationships with two MTA directors — staunch Democrats Gloria Molina and Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke — who are also county supervisors elected with labor votes and dollars. The two made common cause with Republican Mayor Richard Reardon against the unions.

Miguel Contreras, the first Latino head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, came to the drivers' defense, also breaking long-standing political relationships with the building trades and MTA management. Contreras took the side of the federation's most active unions today, which include janitors, hotel workers, and garment workers.

Against this alliance, even Governor Gray Davis proved powerless. In the middle of the strike, Davis agreed to sign legislation guaranteeing MTA jobs, wages and union contracts for four years in the event of the breakup of the transit system. He then tried to use the agreement as leverage to get the supervisors and mechanics unions' leaders to send their members across the drivers' picketlines and back to work.

The heads of these unions agreed, but the following morning, only eight of over 1,800 mechanics crossed the lines. The rest refused. Supported by Contreras, James Williams, head of the drivers' local of United Transportation Union, declined the governor's blandishments.

In the process, both riders and drivers protected the integrity of the transit system. Since the agreement prevents the use of lower wages and broken unions as an incentive, at least for the next few years, it is less likely that the district will be broken up and privatized.

The settlement that ended the strike is a compromise. It allows the MTA to begin hiring part-timers at lower wages. Overtime will be limited, and management will be able to intervene on work rules.

But a new political truth overshadows this compromise — the city's low-wage workers showed themselves willing to defend higher wage-earners. Latinos made common cause with African-Americans. Drivers came out against service cuts that would have bolstered rail service for suburban commuters at the expense of working-class bus riders.

Just a few months ago, L.A.'s low-wage immigrant janitors fought a celebrated strike — the latest in a decade-long series of rebellions from below — for drastic improvements in pay and working conditions. They won the support of the city's emerging Latino political establishment, against the downtown old guard.

When that movement came to the support of the drivers, it recognized a basic common interest. The city's low-wage workers desperately need the public sector — social welfare, public schools, subsidized transportation, free healthcare and other public services. L.A. county workers, for their part, find themselves engaged in a bitter struggle for wage increases and higher budgets for those public services. This new labor-based alliance has the power to redefine who will benefit from the city's new economy.

David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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