The Spark

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

L.A. transit:
Mechanics' strike ends without resolving the healthcare issue

Dec 1, 2003

After a 35-day walkout, mechanics of the Los Angeles MTA (Metropolitan Transit Authority) voted on November 19 to go back to work. The settlement between the MTA board and the mechanics' union ATU (Amalgamated Transit Union), however, is not complete. The issue of healthcare benefits, which in fact was the main point of disagreement between the company and mechanics, is still not resolved. An arbitration panel is to come up with a compromise for both sides to consider. But since the union was ready to accept some kind of cut on healthcare benefits even before the strike, whatever "compromise" the arbitration process produces will mean an even bigger loss for the mechanics.

The wage increase offered by the new, four-year agreement is actually a loss. The mechanics get only a 2% raise for the two first years of the contract, starting from last year when the old contract ended. Then there will be a 2.5% raise for each of the following two years. In other words, this raise actually doesn't keep up with the inflation rate. And the workers will not get the quarterly wage adjustments they used to get.

Not surprisingly, many strikers were not satisfied with the terms of the settlement. When, during a meeting before the vote, some mechanics criticized their local president for handing the health care issue to arbitration, their comments drew loud applause.

Nonetheless, the union leaders reported that the contract passed with an 85% vote. It's obvious that many of those who voted to go back to work did so because they didn't see real prospects if they continued to strike.

For good reason. Throughout the strike, the pickets were mostly routine events. Unlike the MTA strike three years ago, there were no rallies called by the union, letting the strikers demonstrate their determination and measure their own strength. There was no attempt to gain the support of other workers who face similar attacks themselves. There was no attempt to reach out to the community either, especially to the commuters who faced the hardship of having no transportation. No meetings were held to inform the strikers about the progress of the negotiations, let alone to enable workers to discuss their possibilities and give direction to their strike. Strikers were left feeling that they had no control over the outcome of their strike.

A strike like this can seem to the workers like nothing but a nuisance, or, what's worse, something imposed on them to make them accept a bad contract. Many workers voiced the opinion that local president Neil Silver had been forced to call the strike because he will be up for election later this month.

Of course, the issue is not over yet. According to the settlement, either side can reject the arbitration with a 60% majority vote. And the bus drivers, who stayed out with the mechanics during the strike, are still without a contract themselves. So, another strike against the MTA is possible.

If that turns out to be the case, for the strike to have any prospects, the mechanics and drivers themselves will have to make it a real fight, not a trap like this one was.