L.A. Transit Strike Forges a New Political Alliance
by David Bacon
LOS ANGELES (10/19/00) - For decades, Los Angeles' bus drivers and bus riders have looked at each other across the fare box with suspicion and distrust. Riders have been told by the Metropolitan Transit Authority that drivers' salaries were behind the pressure to raise fares. Drivers, in their turn, got the message that the only way to keep their jobs secure and make a living was to stick it to riders in the fare box.
Yet when the recent 32-day drivers' strike ended, its most remarkable achievement was the new alliance drivers and riders forged against the MTA. In fact, not only was that alliance responsible for winning the strike, but it marks a new shift emerging in the city's balance of power, based in Los Angeles changing demographics.
LA bus riders are the base of the city's new economy. Overwhelmingly immigrants from Mexico and Central America, riders are the room cleaners in downtown luxury hotels, seamstresses from the garment sweatshops, day laborers who get jobs on the streetcorner, domestics riding to work in Beverly Hills mansions, and janitors taking the late-night run home from cleaning the city's sparkling glass office towers. They are the city's poor, its newest residents, the workers at the bottom of LA's stratified class structure.
A majority of the drivers, on the other hand, are African-Americans. Over the last two decades, thousands of Black workers found themselves in the street when LA's steel, auto and tire plants closed, and the jobs of thousands went up in smoke. 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.
Drivers had an uphill struggle defending those wages and conditions. 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. It's political structure is rife with elected officials who exploit the consequent hostility. Overcoming this divide in the course of one of the most bitter labor disputes in recent memory shows a new level of sophistication in both communities.
What riders and drivers finally saw clearly was the real reason for the upward pressure on bus fares - not salaries, but the huge construction budgets for new rail systems bringing mostly white commuters in from the suburbs. The rail system in turn supports further land development on the city's fringe, the giant firms paid millions to do the work, and the old guard of the city's labor movement - the building trades - who get the construction jobs.
When the MTA went after cuts in bus service to pay for rail, the Bus Riders Union went to court, winning a consent decree mandating minimum service levels and better maintenance on the busses.
The transit strike was originally another defensive battle, waged against MTA efforts to win further concessions to pay ballooning construction costs. The authority wanted to convert hundreds of existing full-time jobs to part-time, and reduce the salaries paid to the workers affected.
Limiting overtime was another goal. In fact, the MTA wanted to require drivers to pilot their busses through LA's heavy traffic for 13 hours, but get paid for only 10. In the hot LA housing market, the drivers' 50-55 hour week at their $21 scale barely makes a mortgage payment. Drivers aren't the only ones depending increasingly on overtime to pay the bills. The average U.S. work week has grown to 43 hours, and for African-American workers, it stretches a further nine hours beyond that. Everywhere, longer work weeks have become an economic necessity.
Behind the economic demands, the MTA sought freedom to break up the system, spinning off geographic areas into autonomous units, a precondition for turning operations over to private contractors. In the first of these districts, the Foothill District in the San Gabriel Valley, drivers' wages plummetted to $8.50-9.30/hour. Their union's challenge to the new system was defeated by the law firm of Riordan and McKinzie - headed by LA's Republican Mayor Richard Riordan.
"We've opposed the so-called transit zones from the very beginning," says Eric Mann, a member of the planning committee of LA's Bus Riders Union. "We see them as a move to lower wages, and eventually privatize the system, bringing service cuts and higher fares for riders as contractors look for higher profits. One of the best things coming out of the strike was that the drivers saw this too."
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 attitude of the drivers towards the riders' union," Mann explains. "In the past, their union relied on an insider relationship with the MTA, and saw us as troublemakers. That's not true anymore."
Miguel Contreras, the first Latino head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, came to the drivers' defense as soon as the strike started. This too broke long-established political relationships. MTA directors include county supervisors Gloria Molina and Yvonne Braithwaite-Burke, staunch Democrats historically elected with labor votes and dollars. Yet both made common cause with LA's Republican mayor against the unions.
And instead of siding with the building trades and MTA management to defend rail construction, Contreras sided with the drivers and riders. Big changes have taken shape in LA labor over the last ten years. Today the federation's most active unions include janitors, hotel workers, and garment workers. Community-based projects organizing day laborers and domestics have won labor support. They all had to respond to the needs of their members as bus riders. Contreras took their side.
Against this alliance, even the governor proved powerless. In the middle of the strike, Governor Gray Davis tried to get mechanics and supervisors to return to work, and cross the drivers' picketlines. He agreed to sign legislation guaranteeing that for four years, MTA workers would keep their jobs, wages and union contracts in the event of the breakup of the transit system. He then tried to use the agreement as leverage to get union leaders to send their members back to work.
The heads of the supervisors' and mechanics' unions both agreed and told their members to cross the lines. But the following morning, only eight of over 1800 mechanics crossed. 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 system. Since the agreement prevents the use of lower wages and broken unions as an incentive, at least for the next few years, the likelihood is less that the district will be broken up and privatized.
The settlement which ended the strike was 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 these compromises are overshadowed by a new political truth. 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 directed against working-class bus riders, while rail service for suburban commuters eats up precious transit dollars.
Just a few months ago, LA's immigrant janitors fought a celebrated strike to make drastic improvements in wages and conditions close to the bottom, the latest in a decade-long series of rebellions from below. 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, better public schools, subsidized transportation, free healthcare and other public services. As LA county workers today find themselves engaged in a bitter struggle for wage increases and higher budgets for public services, this new labor-based alliance has the power to redefine who will benefit from the city's new economy.
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