The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

MTA mechanics on strike to protect health benefits

Oct 20, 2003

On October 14, over 2,000 mechanics, who maintain the trains and buses of the Los Angeles public transit system, went on strike. The mechanics, represented by the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), had been working without a contract for over a year. Once the picket lines went up, the rest of the unionized workforce, including over 5,000 drivers and clerks, refused to cross, shutting down all subway and light-rail lines and the vast majority of bus lines.

Among other things, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) says it wants to increase what mechanics pay for health insurance to $207 per month, up from $6 per month for a family with children. The MTA is also demanding big cuts in vision and hearing benefits, as well as big cuts in health benefits for retirees.

The MTA claims that its health benefit costs have been "skyrocketing"– which the news media has accepted at face value and continues to repeat.

It's a lie. The MTA pays less per worker for health insurance than it did 10 years ago! In 1993, the MTA paid $573 per month for health benefits per worker. The next year, it dropped the payment to $534 per month, and it has paid that amount ever since.

Obviously, MTA payments have not kept up with inflation, much less with the skyrocketing cost of health insurance. This has left the union-administered Health and Welfare Trust Fund that runs the health coverage for the mechanics, nearly insolvent, in need of big increases in payments from the MTA. The MTA has refused to increase its payments, charging that the union-administered fund is "inefficient" and "mismanaged."

It's a smokescreen!

The newspapers estimate that the MTA would have to pay 50 million dollars a year to keep up the mechanics' benefits. For the MTA, it is a drop in the bucket. For example, the MTA paid 5.8 billion dollars to build the Red Line subway, making it, mile for mile, the most expensive subway in history – anywhere in the world. A recent report found that the MTA pays its prime contractors three times as much as what the original contracts called for. So, a lot of money, hundreds of millions and billions of MTA money, is poured into enormous profits for the construction contractors, the engineering firms, lawyers and accountants, many of whom are related to MTA board members.

The MTA also spends a lot on itself. A few years ago, the MTA built itself a new headquarters, the 27-story Gateway Center, trimmed with Italian granite, along with a 7,000 gallon aquarium, 52-foot high main lobby, executive offices with 20-foot high windows. The cost of the building would have bought 2,000 brand new buses for the overcrowded bus system, if that were its priority, which it isn't. The political and business elite also regularly tap MTA money to pay for their pet projects, like the fancy walk-way and pedestrian mall that is now being built to enhance the new prestigious Disney Orchestra Hall and Cultural Center.

So, the MTA has plenty of money to pay the mechanics, as well as all the workers and employees who are honoring the mechanics' picket line and also happen to be working without a contract. But the only way the workers are going to get it is to fight for it. This strike is long past due.