Garcetti and the DWP deal

Los Angeles Times - - OPINION -

What a dif­fer­ence four years makes.

In the sum­mer of 2013, newly elected Mayor Eric Garcetti faced the first sig­nif­i­cant test of his lead­er­ship skills. He had won the elec­tion de­spite the fact that the union rep­re­sent­ing Los An­ge­les De­part­ment of Wa­ter and Power em­ploy­ees had poured $2 mil­lion into the cam­paign of his op­po­nent. Garcetti had used that to his ad­van­tage in the cam­paign, po­si­tion­ing him­self as the in­de­pen­dent can­di­date who could stand up to the pow­er­ful DWP union leader Brian D’Arcy and de­mand re­form for ratepay­ers.

Within weeks of his in­au­gu­ra­tion, Garcetti was pre­sented with a new con­tract for the In­ter­na­tional Brother­hood of Elec­tri­cal Work­ers Lo­cal 18, which rep­re­sents most DWP em­ploy­ees. The deal on the ta­ble was un­usu­ally spare by city union stan­dards. It called for three years with­out raises, fol­lowed by a 4% pay hike in 2016. It also sig­nif­i­cantly re­duced pen­sion ben­e­fits for new em­ploy­ees.

Still, Garcetti had pledged to be a check on the IBEW and he re­fused to sign off on the con­tract un­til it low­ered health­care costs and ad­dressed the util­ity’s “costly and secret work rules.” In the end, he didn’t get ev­ery­thing he wanted, but he got some, in­clud­ing giv­ing DWP man­age­ment the right to re­open the con­tract to ne­go­ti­ate la­bor rules.

Here we are four years later. Garcetti will soon be sworn into his se­cond term and there’s a new IBEW con­tract on the ta­ble. This time the deal is con­sid­er­ably more gen­er­ous, calling for six raises over five years, to­tal­ing be­tween 13.2% and 22.3%, de­pend­ing on how much in­fla­tion goes up. There’s no ad­di­tional pen­sion re­form and there’s still no re­quire­ment that em­ploy­ees con­trib­ute to their health­care pre­mi­ums. The deal does elim­i­nate $4 mil­lion a year spent on se­cre­tive union-run train­ing and safety in­sti­tutes. But those se­cre­tive work rules that the mayor com­plained about? The util­ity has only just be­gun a study on them.

This time, how­ever, Garcetti hasn’t said a word. The deal was put on the agenda of the Board of Wa­ter and Power Com­mis­sion­ers, who are ap­pointed by the mayor, and ap­proved Tues­day with less than 24 hours no­tice. The con­tract is be­ing fast-tracked with a fi­nal City Coun­cil vote sched­uled for Wed­nes­day. No meet­ings with neigh­bor­hood coun­cil mem­bers. No pe­ti­tions calling for ad­di­tional cost savings. In­stead, Garcetti and City Hall have fallen back into a fa­mil­iar pat­tern in which em­ployee pay and ben­e­fits are ne­go­ti­ated be­hind closed doors and then quickly ap­proved with lit­tle trans­parency or dis­cus­sion of the long-term bud­get im­pli­ca­tions.

Pub­lic em­ployee unions are ma­jor donors to City Hall po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, so per­haps it should be no sur­prise if elected of­fi­cials are re­luc­tant to drive a hard bar­gain. But this con­tract could sure use more anal­y­sis and pub­lic de­bate. In fact, the scru­tiny and pub­lic de­bate over the DWP dur­ing the 2013 may­oral race helped the city ne­go­ti­ate a more cost­ef­fec­tive deal for ratepay­ers.

Garcetti’s aides ar­gue that the IBEW con­tract is rea­son­able when com­pared with those at other util­i­ties in the re­gion and that its pay hikes and other fa­vor­able terms are nec­es­sary to ad­dress the very real com­pe­ti­tion for skilled work­ers. The deal, for ex­am­ple, would give DWP line­men an ad­di­tional 4% pay hike over two years and en­ti­tle them to dou­ble-time when they work ex­tra hours in or­der to help stem the exit of line­men who get their train­ing through the DWP and then leave for bonuses and higher pay at pri­vate util­i­ties. Higher pay for such in-de­mand work­ers makes sense.

But here’s a prob­lem: Other city em­ployee unions have typ­i­cally de­manded com­pa­ra­ble raises with DWP work­ers, even though many of those em­ploy­ees are not spe­cial­ized util­ity work­ers but rather cus­to­di­ans, sec­re­taries and se­cu­rity guards who al­ready get higher com­pen­sa­tion than work­ers in sim­i­lar jobs in the pub­lic and pri­vate sec­tor. In 2007, thenMayor An­to­nio Vil­laraigosa ap­proved raises of nearly 25% over five years for some 20,000 city work­ers to ap­pease com­plaints about the pay dis­par­ity with DWP em­ploy­ees. That deal proved ex­traor­di­nar­ily ex­pen­sive, es­pe­cially as the re­ces­sion hit, and the city ended up lay­ing off work­ers, of­fer­ing early re­tire­ment and slash­ing ser­vices to cut costs.

Garcetti’s aides say the mayor will not re­peat the mis­takes of the past and that the DWP deal is not a tem­plate for up­com­ing ne­go­ti­a­tions with other unions. But Garcetti also said he wants all em­ploy­ees to cover 10% of the cost of their health­care pre­mi­ums — yet re­cent con­tracts, in­clud­ing those cov­er­ing both DWP work­ers and the coali­tion of civil­ian unions, did not re­quire work­ers to pay more of those costs.

Con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions are ex­actly that — ne­go­ti­a­tions. There’s al­ways a ten­sion be­tween con­trol­ling the city’s grow­ing la­bor ex­penses and do­ing what’s nec­es­sary to re­tain tal­ent. But the ratepay­ers and the tax­pay­ers need to know they’ve got elected lead­ers look­ing out for their in­ter­ests at the ne­go­ti­at­ing ta­ble. In 2013, Garcetti demon­strated that he was try­ing. In 2017? Who knows?

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