Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transit Authority Submits New Contract Proposal to Unionized Mechanics
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority on Sunday presented a new contract proposal to unionized mechanics who have been on strike since Tuesday, the Los Angeles Times reports (Streeter/Marosi, Los Angeles Times, 10/20). The mechanics, who are members of the Amalgamated Transit Union, had been working without a contract for more than a year. Talks resumed this month after a more than two-month delay in negotiations. However, negotiations broke down last week over MTA's contribution to the union's health plan and the plan's management. The MTA contributes about $1.4 million each month to the mechanics' health care fund, and the union is responsible for administering members' insurance policies. However, union leaders say health care costs have risen to about $1.9 million a month over the last year because of health insurance premium increases. The fund is now insolvent. Union leaders have asked the MTA to increase its contributions to the fund, but MTA officials say workers should pay more to support it. The MTA, which has contributed $533 a month per mechanic to the fund since 1994, has offered to increase its contribution to $634 per mechanic and to allocate $4 million to the fund to make it solvent. In addition, the MTA has suggested that it temporarily take over the health fund. The union is requesting that the MTA increase its monthly contribution to the fund to $705 per mechanic, with annual increases of 15%. Union negotiators have offered to increase members' share of health insurance costs from $6 to $77 and to share control of the fund equally with MTA trustees (California Healthline, 10/15). Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky (D), who heads the MTA board, did not provide any details about the new contract offer, but Neil Silver, leader of the mechanics union, said it would provide less money for health benefits than the MTA's previous offer (Los Angeles Times, 10/20).
In other labor news, Safeway CEO Steven Burd on Thursday said he would not yield to the striking grocery store workers union's demands, saying the current offer proposed by the company's Vons unit, Albertsons and Kroger is "as good as it gets," the Los Angeles Times reports (Vrana/Cleeland, Los Angeles Times, 10/17). About 70,000 United Food and Commercial Workers members at more than 850 grocery stores in Southern California on Oct. 11 went on strike after contract negotiations between the workers and store officials from Albertsons, Kroger's Ralphs and Pavilions and Safeway's Vons failed, largely because of disputes over health benefits. Because of the sluggish economy, rising health care costs and increased competition from nonunion competitors, the grocery store chains have asked employees to pay $5 a week for individual health care coverage and $10 to $15 a week for family coverage. In addition, the grocery stores have proposed that employees pay as much as $75 for prescription drug coverage and that their dental and vision care benefits be terminated. The union opposes changes to their health plans and wants a 50-cent-an-hour raise the first year of the contract and 45-cent raises in each of the following two years (California Healthline, 10/15). Burd said Safeway is "prepared to take on debt to avoid giving strikers what they wanted," the Times reports. Burd said health care costs would rise by more than $130 million in three years if the supermarket chains did not "battle rising employee-related health care costs now," the Times reports. Burd said the costs of the strike would be less than the proposed increases in workers' health costs. Burd added that the current offer "does a marvelous job of protecting existing employees," who would "still have Cadillac benefits" (Los Angeles Times, 10/17). However, union leaders said they were encouraged by a "strong show of support" at rallies and by the effectiveness of picket lines. At a rally in Santa Monica on Sunday, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that jobs are "threatened by companies seeking to pare back wages and benefits in the interest of boosting profits," the Times reports. He also urged Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) to "jump-start" the stalled negotiations, according to the Times (Earnest/Hirsch, Los Angeles Times, 10/20).
Leaders of Southern California labor unions say that the outcome of the ongoing grocery store workers' strike "could set an important precedent" for benefits negotiations in other industries, the San Diego Union-Tribune reports. "If [the union members] are not victorious, it would give other businesses the idea that they don't have to provide the same quality of health care we are currently receiving," Terry Pesta, president of the San Diego Education Association, said. Historically, labor unions have been able to negotiate better health benefits for members than nonunionized workers receive, but the current weak economy and rising premium costs could reverse that trend, the Union-Tribune reports. At the same time, the increased risk of losing health benefits could boost union membership, according to Aaron Harrison, a spokesperson for the San Diego-Imperial Counties Labor Council (Berestein, San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/19).
Health care inflation is the driving force behind the supermarket workers' strike, and the problem is a matter for the state and federal government to resolve, a San Diego Union-Tribune editorial states. The strike is about a "health care crisis, not just for supermarket chains and their workers, but for almost every industry and individual in America," the editorial states, adding that any end result of the strike will "not remedy the problem." Instead, U.S. residents "of all geographic regions and income levels will have to look to their elected officials" to change the system before access to health care is "reduced by runaway costs," the editorial concludes (San Diego Union-Tribune, 10/17).
The following broadcast programs reported on the role of health care in the strikes:
- KPBS' "KPBS News": The segment includes comments from Vons spokesperson Sandra Calderon and Ken Jacobs, a researcher at the University of California-Berkeley Labor Center (Anderson, "KPBS News," KPBS, 10/17). The full transcript of the segment is available online. The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.
- KQED's "California Report Magazine": The segment includes comments from Joanne Spetz, a University of California-San Francisco professor and associate director of the Center for California Health Workforce Studies (Shafer, "California Report," KQED, 10/17). The full segment is available online in RealPlayer.