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MTA, UNIONS UPBEAT JACKSON ENTERS TALKS TO SPEED NEGOTIATIONS.

Byline: Rick Orlov Staff Writer

Pledging to meet through the weekend to try to end the nearly month-old bus strike, officials with the Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its unions voiced cautious optimism Friday they are on the way to bridging differences.

The newest development came with the Rev. Jesse Jackson entering the talks, meeting with both sides throughout the afternoon Friday to help them develop a process to continue the talks until a settlement is reached.

``Now is the time for negotiation, not confrontation,'' Jackson said at an afternoon news conference in between negotiating sessions and a meeting called by the United Transportation Union to explain to its members the final offer from the MTA board.

Later in the evening, more than 2,500 of the striking transit workers rallied at the Los Angeles Convention Center, casting a largely symbolic vote refusing the MTA's last offer at the urging of union leaders.

``I want you to know there's a better package out there for you,'' James Williams, general manager of the UTU, told the members. ``I know you're hurting, but you have to hold on for a few more days.''

Darnelle Williams, a 17-year driver unrelated to James Williams, said she wasn't yet satisfied with the MTA's proposal.

``A few things bothered me, including the MTA's offer to increase part- time operators' hours,'' she said.

Bargaining resumed at the Pasadena Hilton hotel following the evening rally.

Mayor Richard Riordan said he was encouraged by the progress and the fact the MTA was meeting again with the unions.

``We have started meeting again and it's been cordial,'' Riordan said. ``We are showing mutual respect toward one another and I think we can reach agreement.''

James Williams also appeared more conciliatory than he was Thursday when he accused the MTA of ``trickery'' by going directly to the more than 4,200 drivers by mailing out the transit agency board's ``last, best and final offer.''

``The best is yet to come,'' Williams said, who also promised to work through the weekend to reach an agreement.

Jackson, who engaged in a type of shuttle diplomacy meeting with the different sides, compared the situation to a football game.

``We are now on the 20-yard line,'' Jackson said. ``We're in the red zone, but it is a difficult process to get the touchdown.''

Officials said the key area of dispute is the most sensitive - involving work rules and the pay to drivers who work a split shift and whether they will be paid overtime for the period between shifts. MTA officials said they want to change that to cut their costs as well as be allowed to hire more part-time workers.

Jackson's role in the negotiations arose only during the past several days. He was scheduled to be in the Los Angeles area for unrelated political events when he was contacted by the unions and was asked to become involved.

``I come to this reluctantly,'' Jackson said, adding he agreed to become involved only when Riordan and other MTA officials agreed.

Another new factor was bringing in high-powered attorney-lobbyist Neil Papiano to serve as a mediator.

Papiano, long one of the best-known deal-makers in the city, was accepted by the MTA board after several other suggested mediators were rejected. Papiano has the trust of city and county officials from his years in working with them on a variety of projects.

Papiano would not discuss specifics, other than to express hope on the progress of the talks.

``We seem to have people of good will on both sides,'' Papiano said. ``When you have that, you can find agreement.''

One area said to be under exploration was keeping the current contract in place for all workers, while applying new work rules to future employees.

Under the plan being worked on Friday, however, that was not under discussion.

Instead, MTA officials hope that the striking workers will take a look at the proposal - which calls for a 10.3 percent increase over three years, as well as increases in pension and health benefits.

The proposal was mailed out this week to all the workers. One official expressed hope that the offer would be accepted, partly because of financial pressure upon strikers who have received no pay for four weeks and partly because it is more than county employees are being offered.

Also, there is another new factor in the role being played by Miguel Contreras, executive secretary-treasurer of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO.

The UTU is not part of the AFL-CIO, having dropped out several years ago in a dispute with the umbrella labor organization.

Contreras has been directly involved in the negotiations over the past weeks and, at Friday's news conference, Williams would not allow it to begin until Contreras was part of the group at a podium. Observers said Contreras is attempting to build a new relationship with the UTU so it returns to the AFL-CIO fold.

In another development, state Sen. Richard Alarcon, D-Van Nuys, said he will be exploring a change in the makeup of the MTA board.

Alarcon, whose Industrial Relation Committee has scheduled a hearing for Monday in Los Angeles, said he will be looking at reducing the number of city appointees to the board from four to two and the number of county officials from five to two.

``We need to have a board responsible to the people,'' Alarcon said, saying he would fill those five posts with people directly elected to the MTA panel.

Jackson was invited by Riordan and Supervisor Yvonne Brathwaite Burke, who is MTA board president this year, after the civil rights leader addressed the Los Angeles City Council, urging it to adopt a resolution calling for a resumption of talks.

With an overflow audience of some 350 bus drivers in the council chambers chanting ``Jesse, Jesse, Jesse,'' Jackson said officials had to get beyond posturing on television.

``Talking is the only step toward resolution,'' Jackson said. ``We should talk, talk, talk, before we fight, fight, fight. We need to get people in a room and sit down at a table and talk.''

Jackson related his own experience in Chicago in 1980 when there was an impasse with firefighters. He said he was able to help resolve it by getting both sides to sit down to talk.

Shortly after his remarks, the council voted 13-0 to ask Riordan to take steps to resolve the strike.

Councilman Alex Padilla introduced the proposal, calling resolution of the strike the most important issue in the city.

``My sentiment is: Enough is enough,'' Padilla said. ``This has been going on 28 days - 28 days too long. I think we have an opportunity now and we should seize the moment.''

Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg said she was disturbed with the way the strike has been portrayed.

``It is almost as if it's an inconvenience,'' Goldberg said. ``This is more than a minor inconvenience. This is a crisis and it's long past time we solved this.''

Staff Writer Orith Goldberg contributed to this report.

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- color) JACKSON

(2) Striking bus driver Leo Noya shows support for the proposal to select Jesse Jackson as mediator for the MTA strike during Friday's City Council meeting.

Eric Grigorian/Special to the Daily News
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 14, 2000
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