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California transit, grocery strikes still on
Associated Press Some of the striking MTA bus drivers walk a picket line Monday at the county administration building in Los Angeles. About 2,200 MTA mechanics went on strike last week and another 6,000 drivers and train operators walked off in support.

LOS ANGELES (AP) - An estimated half-million commuters faced another morning rush hour without city buses or trains as a transit strike entered its sixth day.

The labor protests in the nation's third-largest transit system have clogged freeways and forced users to scramble for alternative ways to commute. The strike, coupled with a grocery workers strike and lock out, has weakened Southern California's already troubled economy.

Though negotiations between mechanics and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority have apparently stalled, talks with train operators, bus drivers and the authority have gained momentum, said Bill Heard, spokesman for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

"Things are looking quite optimistic with the drivers," Heard said Sunday. "We are at the table, face to face, and things are quite cordial."

About 2,200 MTA mechanics went on strike Tuesday after contract negotiations collapsed over the cost of health care coverage. Nearly 6,000 MTA drivers and train operators joined the mechanics in the picket line.

The MTA and the mechanics union met separately Saturday with a state mediator at a hotel in Pomona, but made little progress, Heard said. Negotiations between MTA representatives and the United Transportation Union, the union for MTA bus and rail operators, resumed Sunday morning.

Calls to Neil Silver, president of the mechanics' Amalgamated Transit Union, were not immediately returned Sunday.

In addition to the transit walkout, a total of 70,000 grocery clerks from three companies - Kroger Co.'s Ralphs, Safeway Inc.'s Vons and Albertsons Inc. - went on strike or were locked out Oct. 11 in Southern and Central California.

Terry O'Neil, spokesman for Ralphs, said no new negotiations were scheduled.

"The strikes go on until the union makes a decision to come back to the table and enter into meaningful discussions about the issues," O'Neil said.

The supermarket chains tried to sway public opinion with a full-page ad in Southern California newspapers Sunday that described their contract offers as "more than fair."

"Do you care about the folks on the picket line? We do, too," the ad said. "We want everyone to know that we're committed to taking care of both our customers and our employees."

Rick Icaza, president of the UFCW Local 770, took issue with the ad, which also ran Friday.

"How can it be fair if you reduce our medical benefits?" he asked.

Average pay for clerks is about $15 an hour and most do not work full time. Workers currently pay no premiums for full health coverage and have a $10 copay for doctor visits and prescriptions.

The companies want them to pay $5 a week for individual coverage or $15 a week to cover a family.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson urged Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger to step in. "It's time for the Terminator to go to the bargaining table," Jackson told about 400 union supporters at a Santa Monica rally.

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