Bus drivers strike to keep heads above water

LOS ANGELES — On the heels of a fare increase for the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority comes a strike by coach operators for the neighboring Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA). The drivers are represented by Teamsters Local 952.

According to a report by Kristen Monaco of California State University at Long Beach, the economic package being offered by the OCTA does not keep pace with inflation. Orange County has some of the highest prices in the nation for housing, gasoline, insurance, food and other commodities.

The city of Santa Ana has been hardest hit by the strike. Residents of Santa Ana are the poorest of the poor in Orange County. They depend on buses for all their transportation needs. Without bus service, they have been left stranded.

The OCTA is staffing only a minimal number of bus lines in Santa Ana, including the popular line 43, which runs from Fullerton down Harbor Boulevard to Costa Mesa. Supervisors are doing the driving from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., Monday through Friday.

The bus mechanics belong to the same union as the drivers, but are working under a separate labor agreement. The union has sent letters to all the mechanics letting them know that it is their right not to cross the sanctioned picket lines of the drivers. So far, the strike is solid.

Assemblyman Jose Solorio, representing the 69th District, which runs through the heart of Orange County, has issued a statement calling on the OCTA board of directors to instruct their negotiators to bargain fairly with the drivers and their union.

“I support the efforts of Teamsters Local 952 to secure a fair contract,” Solorio said. “OCTA’s coach operators are an essential part of the OCTA and our community. I believe they deserve a wage increase and fair benefits to be able to deal with inflation, and continue to provide for their families.”

Monaco’s report shows that the transit authority’s previous contract with the bus drivers, from 2004 to 2006, did not keep pace with inflation. The actual value of the workers’ pay and benefits declined 3.39 percent by the end of 2006. According to the report, OCTA’s proposal to deal with this “underage” would actually not fully catch the workers up until 2009. That means “the reduction in the real value of the compensation package will continue to erode, since the underage persists for three years,” the report says.

Arthur Leahy, OCTA’s CEO, has rejected the union’s proposed economic package.

The union’s secretary-treasurer, Patrick Kelly, was in round-the-clock negotiations and unavailable for comment. A call to the union’s bargaining unit hotline revealed that the union and OCTA negotiators returned to the bargaining table on July 9, and that bargaining has continued with some progress.