Public doesn't have choice in walkout
Where there are no alternatives, binding arbitration is necessary

Op-ed article, Daily News, November 12, 2003

Many thousands of our region's residents have had their lives thrown into turmoil by the third strike in 10 years against the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. Some are directly affected because they are dependent on public transit service to get to and from their jobs or school; others are indirectly affected because they are driving when they otherwise would not, adding to our already congested streets and freeways.

Although I am a member of the MTA’s governance council for the San Fernando Valley sector, my role does not include collective-bargaining agreements, and thus I cannot comment on who is right or who is wrong in this dispute. I know what I read in the paper, as the cliché goes.

But I am also that rarity: a public-transit official who actually uses the service, and in that regard I am every bit as inconvenienced as the countless numbers who literally cannot get around during this strike.

From the perspective of a transit-dependent individual, I can understand how many will blame the head of the union for being insensitive to the needs of the public, but I wonder how many would feel the same toward the union leaders who, two days earlier, called a strike against our region’s three largest supermarket chains. In fact, I doubt many people feel the same sense of inconvenience, because there are options available -- other markets which are not involved in the labor dispute.

That is the important difference in perception by the public of the two strikes: The availability, or lack, of options.

Where MTA service is involved, the transit-dependent are left without alternatives. When the authority’s mechanics struck, the unions representing the drivers honored their strike, and that is what has halted service. With no service running, I am not allowed to decide for myself whether or not I have a moral obligation to support the striking workers, or whether my need for transportation outweighs their concerns. I am, in fact, forced to support their walkout, whether I agree with them or not.

With the supermarket strike, there are other stores available for me to patronize until normalcy returns at my usual market.

No such competition exists in public transit.

Since 1958, transit service in Los Angeles has been provided by government agencies, which assumed responsibility for failing privately owned transit companies that dominated the landscape prior to then. The economics are the same -- or worse -- now as they were then; transit service cannot be both profitable and affordable to those who need it. Thus there are not multiple companies running buses up and down the street, fighting for ridership, and therefore there are no alternatives in much of the region to the now-halted MTA service.

Since private operators are not likely to be the solution to our transportation problems (even the few bus lines operated by private companies under contract are indirectly receiving a subsidy of public funds) the answer is to make the service more reliable by making it virtually non-interruptive.

The mechanism exists to bring this level of reliability to transit agencies.

The State Employer-Employee Relations Act of 1978, commonly known as the Ralph C. Dills Act, prevents state employees from striking, substituting binding arbitration if their union and the state cannot agree on terms of a contract. There is no reason why a similar act could not be passed by the state Legislature covering public transportation agencies in California, and the argument can easily be made that transit service is as much a necessity as many of the state’s functions.

The mechanics union has said binding arbitration is preferable to a continued strike, and Mayor James Hahn, among others, has called for the MTA to accept the union's offer for binding arbitration. There is no reason not to make it the required option.

One needs only to look at the increased congestion over the past four weeks to prove the necessity of transit service, and one needs only to follow our region's media reports of lost jobs and lowered patronage to see how much productivity our region’s economy has lost.

We are already long past the point where we should be telling the Legislature that "enough is enough." For the good of our region, this needs to be the last strike against the MTA -- ever.

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