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Why L.A. transit strike matters to more than city's poor

By Greg LaMotte
CNN Correspondent

This news analysis was written for CNN Interactive.

MTA buses and trains have not been running since the transit strike started Saturday in Los Angeles  

In this story:

The 'mass' in transit

National headaches from local traffic

Just don't shut down the freeways


LOS ANGELES (CNN) -- What are the worst two words a person could utter in New York City? How about, "transit strike"?

Wait. Don't panic. There has not been a transit strike in New York in 20 years. Why?

Maybe it is because the mass transportation system there really is for the masses. Anyone and everyone, including power brokers and politicians, routinely use the subways and buses in New York. The city's lifestyle revolves around its mass transit system.

Maybe that is why New York has adopted laws that make it extraordinarily difficult for mass transit workers to strike.

Such is not the case in Los Angeles.

In the nation's second largest city few people seem to care that some 4,300 bus and train operators went on strike Saturday, and fewer people are affected. Many residents initially did not even know a strike had begun as they waited at stops for buses and trains that did not come.

The fact is, mass transportation in Los Angeles is not for the masses.

The 'mass' in transit

In car-happy southern California, mass transportation is not that important to the people who make policy in Los Angeles, according to Wendell Cox, a former top official with the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and now a consultant to transit unions.

A Los Angeles bus driver on Wednesday urges motorists to honk their horns in support of the strike  

Mass transit here is primarily for the poor. A majority of the estimated half-million users of the city's mass transit system earn around $15,000 or less a year, and 75 percent of them do not own a car, according to the MTA.

What is more, just 3 percent of commuters here rely on mass transit.

So when it comes to Los Angeles, the people who can least afford a transit strike are the ones who are being affected the most. Yet these are the people with the least political clout.

Maybe that is why, at least in part, there have been seven transit strikes in Los Angeles over the past 30 years. In the 1970s, union workers went on strike almost every time they were negotiating new contracts.

National headaches from local traffic

The current strike-related issues in Los Angeles could have ramifications for transportation systems nationwide.

Here is why. In rapidly expanding cities such as Phoenix, Arizona, and Atlanta, Georgia, transportation officials are making decisions about how to expand their transportation infrastructures.

New York City, with its massive bus and subway system, provides one example. Los Angeles, which decades ago chose to emphasize freeways, provides another.

For cities contemplating their own transit needs, some transportation experts in Los Angeles say the strike here should make city planners nationwide aware of what can be added costs of providing safe, reliable, bus and rail service.

The latest strike in Los Angeles is primarily over the issue of overtime pay. The MTA says it faces a shortfall of $438 million over 10 years unless something is done.

The MTA wants to cut back on overtime in order to save $23 million over three years. The striking United Transportation Union says the MTA should raise fares. The city says those who use the system cannot afford a fare increase. The union says it cannot afford to lose overtime.

In 1974, when the city's longest such strike lasted 68 days, transportation unions got the city to agree to pay bus and rail operators for hours between split shifts. The operators do not drive buses or trains during those hours between the two blocks of time of their workdays, but they do get paid for them.

That is where a lot of overtime enters the books. And that issue is now one of the main sticking points in Los Angeles because city officials would like, at the very least, to cut back on pay for the hours between split shifts.

Some MTA officials suggest these kinds of costs, along with the potential costs of union strikes, should be taken into consideration by city planners and state legislators nationwide.

Just don't shut down the freeways

The fact is that any transportation system has its advantages and disadvantages.

There are overcrowded subways that sometimes fail in New York City. And there are overcrowded freeways in Los Angeles that often cause major headaches and lots of pollution.


But regardless of a city's transportation system, most people, regardless of where they live in a city, seem to figure out a way to make it work for them.

One way or the other the transit strike in Los Angeles will be resolved, and the buses and trains will run again. That will certainly be good news to those who depend on it.

For many others here, the transit strike will have been only a story they heard about on the local news.

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Los Angeles Rail Transit
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California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO
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Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation

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