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Frustrated after a weekend of talks produced no progress toward ending the 14-day strike, officials of the area's transit agency halted further negotiations Monday and asked rank-and-file members to vote on what they called the agency's last, best and final offer.

As soon as today, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority will begin passing out copies of the offer to mechanics on picket lines and mailing copies to others in hope of bypassing union leadership and winning over workers who have lost $2,000 each, on average, so far in the two-week strike.

But the declaration of an impasse means it could be weeks before an end to the strike - particularly affecting the city's poor and disabled who depend on buses and trains - because union members don't have to vote, and no deadline was set.

``Time's a-wasting. People are being hurt every day, both our customers and our employees,'' the MTA chief executive, Roger Snoble, said at a news conference. He was flanked by most of the nine members of the MTA board who are eligible to participate in contract talks.

The ball's in their court,'' he said.The offer on the table's the offer on the table. My board's made it very clear to me they're not going to change that.''

Health care has been a main issue launching what has become the fifth-longest strike in Los Angeles in decades.

Snoble, calling the mechanics' offer presented Saturday ``totally unsatisfactory,'' said the two sides remained $98 million apart - $37 million apart on health care benefits alone.

The mechanics union president, Neil Silver, blasted Snoble and the board for holding a news conference rather than meeting at the bargaining table. He said he doubted his members would be interested in voting for the contract.

This is about our present, our future. ... This is about health care for our retirees, health care for our workers. You think they're going to cave?'' said Silver, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union, which includes 2,000 mechanics and service workers and 500 retirees.Do you think we're going to let that happen?''

Silver pointed to MTA officials' salaries and construction budgets he said they want to finance ``on the backs of the retirees.''

Silver is running for re-election next month, and MTA Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky has said the strike has been caught up in internal politics.

Silver denounced that Monday, saying, ``Health care is not political; prescription drugs are not political.''

Declaring an impasse calls off any further negotiations unless the union is prepared to submit a new offer, officials said.

The MTA hopes the workers will vote to approve its offer.

But if the workers decline to vote on it, the MTA could consider the next step of unilaterally imposing a one-year contract.

The workers, though, could refuse to return to work, leaving the agency to consider hiring replacements.

But it could be as long as two years before the agency could hire enough skilled mechanics to manage the fleet.

The MTA board voted 9-0 to declare the impasse with mechanics, which does not impact ongoing talks with the bus drivers and clerks who are honoring the picket line.

On the health issue, the MTA is offering increases that are a fraction of what the union says employees need to stay in current plans, for which single workers pay nothing and families pay $6 monthly.

The union's willing to have employees chip in $70 monthly to help cover health costs if MTA pays the rest.

But agency negotiators offered a maximum increase in employer contributions of $100 month per worker and nothing for retirees, leaving the union to either charge the members or find cheaper rates from health providers.

The union-managed health care account is funded by lump-sum checks each month from the MTA. An auditor recently found inefficiencies that MTA officials, who want to share control of the fund, call mismanagement. Silver disputes that, but says he's willing to share control of the fund.

Earlier Monday, county Federation of Labor head Miguel Contreras said it was time for a ``high profile'' third party to help resolve the conflict.


(The Los Angeles Daily News web site is at

c.2003 Los Angeles Daily News

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