Tentative Agreement in L.A. Transit Strike

Los Angeles bus drivers and rail operators are set to vote tonight on a tentative deal that could end their monthlong strike.

The agreement between union and transit authority officials was reached early today following a marathon negotiation session. The Rev. Jesse Jackson had been working with the two sides in recent days in hopes of brokering a pact.

“We had almost given up, and then we were blessed by an angel that gave us a fresh idea,” Jackson said.

The proposal must still be approved by the United Transportation Union at a meeting tonight. The Metropolitan Transportation Authority already has unanimously approved the agreement. Both sides refused to discuss details of the tentative pact until it is ratified by the union.

If the pact is ratified, bus service will resume Wednesday and subway service will resume Thursday, Metropolitan Transportation Authority spokesman Marc Littman said.

The MTA normally serves about 450,000 riders daily throughout Los Angeles County.

Contract disputes have centered on over time pay, the timing of shifts and what would happen to workers under a reorganization of the massive transit agency. MTA authorities and the unions representing its drivers, clerks and mechanics argued over a city proposal to reduce overtime paid to bus and rail operators, forcing them to work longer shifts for regular pay.

The disputed plan required the workers to split their shifts by driving during rush hours and going off the clock during off-peak hours. MTA officials said they must cut costs, increase fares or face a $430 million operating deficit over the next 10 years.

The striking bus drivers’ union general chairman, James Williams, said he would recommend that bus drivers and rail operators ratify the contract.

“It’s been long and it’s been hard. We’ve fought a good fight and now it’s time to go back to work,” Williams said. “It’s time to heal all wounds and step forward.”

Everybody Wins … Hopefully

The strike began Sept. 16 and has shut down transit service in the sprawling city, most heavily affecting the poor, leaving them few travel options in a city where the car is king.

Jackson credited Los Angeles County supervisors Zev Yaroslavsky and Yvonne Brathwaite Burke as well as Mayor Richard Riordan for helping to reach the agreement. He said both sides in the strike — and commuters — would benefit from the proposed pact.

“Workers are better off today than they were two or three days ago. Core jobs are secure,” Jackson said. “The public will win. The MTA will win.”

MTA officials apologized to commuters for the 32-day strike but insisted they could not compromise the transit agency’s long term future.

“We regret the hardship and inconvenience that it has caused to transit in Los Angeles County,” said Burke. “But I can assure you that our bargaining with UTU was necessary to protect the long term financial interest of the MTA and continue to maintain and expand service to our customers.”

At least one commuter is relieved the strike is nearing an end.

’I’m relieved. That is great. I no longer have to foot it,” said Rick Espinosa, 30, of Los Angeles.

Espinosa, who works out of his home, used the bus about four times a week for errands such as shopping and trips to the gym. He recently bought a bicycle to cope with the loss of transportation.

“It was a real inconvenience, to put it mildly,” he said.

Progress in Another Strike

On another labor front, talks resumed today between Los Angeles County and a union representing 47,000 of its employees. Both sides expressed optimism that a resolution might be near.

Los Angeles County’s chief administrative officer, David Janssen, said he hopes to reach an agreement by midweek.

The union shares Janssen’s optimism, a spokesman said late Monday, but added that the talks were still at a sensitive stage.

“We are pleased but there are some important issues out there we need to resolve,” said Mark Tarnawsky, spokesman for Service Employees International Union Local 660.

The SEIU called a general strike a week ago, but suspended it one day later at the request of Roman Catholic Cardinal Roger Mahony, who said it was hurting the poor. The union has sought a 15.5 percent pay increase over a three-year period and announced Monday that Los Angeles County agreed to wage increases of more than 9 percent for more than half its members. County officials, the union also said, also agreed to improved retirement benefits and increased training for union members.

ABC affiliate KABC in Los Angeles and The Associated Press contributed to this report.