Striking Los Angeles bus drivers win support
Reach out to passengers, unionists to defend public transport
Some 2,000 UTU-organized bus drivers and supporters marched and rallied at the Metropolitan Transportation Authority's headquarters September 21 in Los Angeles.
BY NAN BAILEY
LOS ANGELES--"All I want is a little respect," sang many of the 2,000 striking bus drivers and their supporters gathered outside City Hall, as they danced to a recording of the famous song by Aretha Franklin.
This confident mood marked a September 29 rally in support of the strike by the United Transportation Union (UTU) against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) as the strike entered its third week. Mechanics and clerks, who have joined the UTU-organized drivers on the picket lines, were also at the spirited rally. The mechanics are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union and the clerks are organized by the Transportation Communications International Union.
Many other unionists joined the protest. T-shirts and signs identified members of the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees Union (HERE), International Association of Machinists, National Association of Letter Carriers, and American Federation of Television and Radio Artists--one of the unions representing actors on strike against the giant advertising companies.
Bus operators are fighting around the issues of work hours, overtime pay, work rules, and privatization of bus lines.
The MTA is proposing to "put about 400 operators on a four-day workweek requiring them to be on duty for 13 hours but paid for only 10, with no overtime," the union explained in the October issue of its newspaper, UTU News. "The three hours of unpaid time would be spent killing time in MTA recreation rooms or preparing for runs.
"Overtime is a significant part of the average bus driver's income, and the UTU estimates that the four-day week outlined by the MTA would reduce an average operator's earnings by 15%. Bus drivers earn $8 an hour at the entry level; the most experienced make $20.72 an hour."
The strikers also oppose the MTA's proposal to contract out bus lines in the Sun Valley to private companies.
"I'm here because there is so much injustice," Rosa Díaz said as she held up a sign that said, "HERE supports the bus drivers." Díaz, who works as a waitress at a local hotel, added, "The only way we can get respect is to have a strong union."
Speaking to the crowd of mostly Black and Latino bus operators, James Williams, president of the UTU local that represents the drivers, said, "We call on the mayor to instruct the MTA bargaining team to remove their demand for a $23 million pay cut. I call on the mayor to join me, as the leader of this city, at the bargaining table."
Meanwhile, as the Militant goes to press, the president of the Amalgamated Transit Union has asked the mechanics employed by the MTA to return to work, but the 2,000 unionists have refused to cross the bus drivers' picket lines.
Strength of strike
The strength of the strike and the support won by the striking drivers have contributed to two developments. First, capitalist politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties have divided over the strike and begun to debate openly how to resolve the crisis of the two-week shutdown of a mass transit system that normally serves 450,000 passengers daily.
Some, like Mayor Richard Riordan and County Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, have vigorously defended the MTA and its radio ads portraying bus drivers as overpaid and selfish. Others, like the dozens of capitalist politicians who addressed the September 29 strike solidarity rally, have decided to pose as sympathetic to the drivers. Among the politicians speaking at the rally were the majority of the members of the Los Angeles City Council, Rep. Maxine Waters, and two candidates for mayor of Los Angeles.
Another development registering the pressure on the government to settle the strike was the September 30 decision by Gov. Gray Davis to sign Senate Bill 1101, under which the MTA must abide by all existing labor contracts if it decides to create smaller suburban transit zones. The bill addresses one of the key issues in dispute in the strike--the MTA's plan to contract out transit lines. Davis vetoed a similar proposal one year ago.
Davis's actions provoked a sharp response from Bruce Ackerman, president of the Economic Alliance of the San Fernando Valley, a business organization, who said, "I really thought that the governor was beyond the threat of that union thug mentality. It's a sad day for the San Fernando and the San Gabriel valleys because it literally takes local control of transit out of their hands."
Unionists answer attacks
The bus drivers are answering the antiunion propaganda of the MTA, which blames the unionists for keeping the transit system shut down. They are distributing a flyer, in English and Spanish, addressed "To the residents of the city of Los Angeles," that states:
"We, the bus operators of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, are on strike to defend our rights and the dignity of a fair and just wage. We are not asking for an increase in salary. We only ask that the MTA honor their past contract and their past promises and commitments to us and not pursue their intention of reducing our wages.
"At the same time we are totally opposed to the privatization of the public transportation system. This would result in the destruction of our workforce. As we all know the private companies that would be created would have, as their main goal, low wages for their workers.
"Don't allow yourselves to be fooled by Mayor Richard Riordan or Country Supervisors such as Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, Gloria Molina, and Zev Yaroslowski. Their only interest is to privatize public transport to benefit themselves and their big business friends and not for the benefit of the working people of L.A."
The statement concludes, "We are not the enemies of the transit dependent. You as passengers and we as bus operators are all working-class people. You also have the right to unionize and fight for fair and just wages. Organize against exploitation and for justice in the workplace."
MTA's privatization moves
The issue of "privatization," or "zoning," has been a heated one in this strike. The MTA has already contracted out some of the bus lines in Los Angeles to private companies. The breakup of the transit system to supposedly save money--at the expense of both transit workers and those who use the system--has been a long-range plan of the MTA board and the wealthy interests it serves.
"I worked for one of those lines, ATE, before I got hired by the MTA," said Sal, a Salvadoran-born worker who has driven an MTA bus for five years. When he drove for ATE, the line had just recently been contracted out by the MTA.
"A lot of passengers complained to me, saying--'Hey, what happened? You used to come every 10 minutes, now it's every 30 minutes!' " he explained. "And that's what they did to save money. They cut back the service. I only got paid $7.50 an hour driving for that line. When I got hired by the MTA I started at $11.40 an hour and the benefits are much better. Also, the MTA leases to those private lines the old buses that the MTA doesn't want to use anymore. That's why those contracted lines don't just hurt us who work--they also hurt the passengers."
Eddie Lopez is a driver in one of the Sun Valley divisions, the area the MTA is currently targeting for privatization, and secretary of the local union committee. "If they create their own transit system out here," Lopez said as he did picket duty, "they will take workers' jobs away because they would fire or lay us off. I think it's the main issue in this strike. There are about 1,200 drivers, mechanics, and other MTA employees out here in the valley who would be affected. They would get rid of us and our union and hire people for lower wages."
The refusal of the MTA to meet the bus operators' demands has led to massive congestion of freeways that were already overcrowded. The strike has brought into sharp relief the severe transportation crisis here--in which one of the world's major metropolitan centers lacks an adequate public transit system, forcing hundreds of thousands to rely on cars and overloaded highways as the basic means of transportation. The city and county officials' plan is not designed to address this crisis.
Los Angeles was not always dependent on the freeways. Before World War II, the city and surrounding area were served by what was then the world's largest mass transit electric rail system. Pacific Electric operated 3,000 trains, carrying 80 million people a year.
This system was deliberately destroyed by General Motors, Standard Oil, and other corporations that stood to gain from replacing it with a transport system based on private cars, GM buses, and massive gasoline consumption, with the biggest burden on working people.
Other labor struggles
"Is half the world on strike, about to strike or coming off a strike?" asked the Los Angeles Times in a front-page article on September 29. "In Los Angeles, where janitors, librarians, teachers, bus drivers, and actors have appeared downright eager to carry picket signs, it sure feels that way. Labor strife is becoming the great unifier, cutting across lines of class, race, and ethnicity."
The article noted that, in addition to the transit workers, 60,000 actors have been on strike since May 1 against national ad agencies. Some 800 county doctors, members of the Union of American Physicians and Dentists, are planning job actions the week of October 2. Also beginning that week, Service Employees International Union Local 660, representing 47,000 county workers, has announced the beginning of "rolling strikes," starting with animal control and registrar-recorder workers. Other county workers will carry out one-day strikes until October 11, when, if a contract hasn't been settled, union leaders say all the county workers will strike. The county employees are demanding a wage increase.
About 40,000 teachers in the Los Angeles United School District have voted to authorize a strike, with no date yet set, if a settlement isn't reached in the negotiations for a contract that expired June 30.
County workers and teachers were also among those joining the transit workers at the September 29 rally. Jesús Escandón, an elementary school teacher, wore a T-shirt that said, "An Injury to One is an Injury to All."
Escandón explained that he was at the rally because "I read in the LA Times about the economic boom crap, how Wall Street is shooting up to the breaking point, that LA has rebounded from recession. How do I fit into this picture? We've been shut out just like the bus drivers, the janitors, and the home health-care workers."
Nan Bailey is a meat packer and the Socialist Workers candidate for U.S. Senate from California.
'Organize solidarity with transit strikers'
The following are excerpts from a campaign statement issued by Socialist Workers candidates Nan Bailey, Deborah Liatos, and Ned Measel. Bailey, from Los Angeles, is running for U.S. Senate; Deborah Liatos for U.S. Congress in the 8th District in San Francisco; and Ned Measel for U.S. Congress in the 20th District in Fresno, California.
The Socialist Workers campaign joins with the Los Angeles transit workers, whose strike advances the strength and dignity of all workers. We back their demands against the MTA. The transit workers are part of growing resistance in the labor movement across the country to attacks on wages, working conditions, and democratic rights. They join coal miners, meat packers, janitors, phone workers, farmers, truckers, and others in saying, "Enough!"
The Democratic and Republican politicians are crying crocodile tears over the difficulties facing bus riders after presiding over a decades-long crisis in mass transit. Money was poured into a rail system that only serves limited areas of the city, at a huge profit to bondholders, while a woefully inadequate number of antiquated buses serve the overwhelming majority of working people.
Mayor Richard Riordan, Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, and the rest of the MTA demand that the United Transportation Union come up with a proposal on how to cut the costs of running buses.
We say inexpensive mass transit should be a right, with decent pay for transit workers. The money now going into the pockets of the wealthy bondholders and a steeply graduated income tax on the rich could pay for this many times over. But both the Democratic and Republican politicians uphold the system that puts the profits of a few above the needs of the vast majority and try to corral workers into greater sacrifices as the crisis of the capitalist system deepens.
The Socialist Workers Party campaign points toward another road: relying on the power of working-class action, such as the transit workers are magnificently demonstrating, instead of the promises of politicians who serve the employers' class.
We join with others to organize solidarity with the transit strikers and all others who stand up against capitalist