Thousands of striking LA bus drivers rally on day 6 of strike

LOS ANGELES - Thousands of striking bus and rail operators rallied outside the regional transit agency's headquarters Thursday, calling for an end to a six-day walkout that has left nearly half a million commuters scrambling for alternate transportation.

On a drizzly day in which rain further complicated morning commutes, union leaders urged some 3,000 Metropolitan Transportation Authority workers to stay off the job until the agency meets their contract demands.

''The fight will be long, it will be hard, and you will need to show up and show your support day after day,'' said Ray Huffer, chairman of the union representing 650 MTA clerks, who are honoring the drivers' picket line.

The drivers, many wearing their blue uniforms, chanted ''No contract, no buses'' and said they believe the MTA eventually would give in to their demands.

''I don't see that the city can take much more,'' said Jose Ramos, 44, a bus driver for 10 years. ''You see the traffic out there - they need us out there.''

The walkout has forced hundreds of thousands of people, mostly the region's working poor, to hitchhike, walk or look for rides from private vehicles acting illegally as fare-collecting shuttles.

Bus and rail riders who do have their own cars have been forced to use them, further jamming an already clogged regional freeway system.

Another round of negotiations between the agency and the union representing 4,300 bus and rail operators is scheduled for Friday. MTA officials, however, said they were ready to resume negotiations immediately and were disappointed in the rally.

''We're disgusted. Instead of being at the bargaining table trying to work out a contract, the drivers union is out there grandstanding,'' MTA spokesman Marc Littman said. ''We wish they were wearing those uniforms driving buses right now instead of rallying outside our building.''

MTA clerks and mechanics, as well as several hundred janitors, hotel workers and other members of the region's unionized work force, joined the rally near Union Station.

At one point Thursday, sign-carrying strikers marched around the plaza in front of transit authority headquarters yelling, ''boo, boo'' to MTA workers watching them from a third-floor balcony.

Speakers who included state Assemblyman and Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa and City Councilwoman Jackie Goldberg said the MTA had stalled talks and failed to bargain in good faith.

Littman, however, challenged union officials to get back to the bargaining table, saying little progress was made during 10 hours of talks Wednesday.

He said the sides agreed only on such minor issues as allowing union dues to be collected from paychecks and increasing allowances for cleaning uniforms.

The sides remain far apart on ways to address what is expected to be a $438 million operating deficit over the next 10 years.

The MTA wants to hire more part-time operators and drivers at entry-level wages and cut overtime costs 15 percent.

The drivers union wants more money for pensions and for a health care trust administered by the union. The MTA wants to see an audit of how the union has spent the $75 million the agency has contributed to the trust during the past three years.

Union officials have not produced the audit, Littman said.

At a news conference following the rally, MTA board members blamed union negotiators for a lack of progress by failing to respond to key issues.

''We don't know what they want,'' MTA chief executive officer Julian Burke said. ''We really don't know how to end this strike.''

The sides also disagree on wage increases. The union wants 4 percent annual raises; the MTA has offered 2.7 percent.

While the average salary for a bus or train operator is $50,000 a year, some make up to $85,000 annually with overtime. During the rally, some veteran drivers said those wages come with a price.

''I spend 15, 16 hours a day. That's seven days a week. I don't have no family life. That's why I stay single,'' said 10-year veteran Gus Castillo, 32, who makes about $70,000 a year with overtime. ''I make good money, (but) I don't recommend this job to nobody.''

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