Politics, government and public life for Southern California

Garcetti promises tough negotiations with DWP labor union

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Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti is promising to hold down salaries at the Department of Water and Power during labor contract talks now under way. But it's unclear how much the mayor can squeeze from the powerful union that represents DWP workers, and whether the city council will back him up.

Members of the council often criticize the DWP and its water and power rates, but they also heap praise on the nation’s largest municipal utility.

“There are a lot of tremendous people who work there,” Councilman Tom LaBonge said when asked about the well-paid workers at the DWP. ”When it’s hot, they’re high on those poles, and deep in those ditches.”

Newly elected Councilman Gil Cedillo – a one-time union organizer – dismissed the idea that the city overpays DWP workers.

“I don’t think we’ve been too generous with workers of DWP or with any workers in the city of Los Angeles,” Cedillo said. “They have difficult jobs – some of them are very dangerous.”

For years, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, which represents nearly 9,000 DWP workers, has used those arguments – and campaign donations – to win generous labor contracts from the city.

But that union was on the losing end of the L.A. mayor’s race – it spent generously on behalf of Wendy Greuel.  The new mayor – who during the campaign suggested Greuel was “bought and paid for” by the DWP union – said Thursday he intends to be a tough negotiator during contract talks. 

“As we recover from the economy, we’ve got to make sure that money goes into services that we had to cut during the recession,” Garcetti told Good Day L.A. Fox TV 11.  He said the money should “not just go to pensions, not just go to healthcare costs, not just go to salaries that have gone up over time.”

The next contract goes into effect next year, but Garcetti declined to talk specifically about ongoing negotiations. 

Aside from salaries and raises, contract talks will likely include healthcare costs. Unlike other city employees, the vast majority of DWP workers pay nothing for HMO coverage now.

“We’ve let their salaries become too generous,” said Councilman Paul Kortez, who sits on the Executive Employee Relations Committee with the mayor.

Koretz said union leaders – acknowledging ongoing city deficits but also aware of their weakened position with a mayor they opposed in the election – understand this contract won’t be as good as past agreements.

“I think everyone on both sides of the negotiations agrees we have to be tighter than we have in the past,” he said.

The question is how tight. Any labor contract must be approved by the 15-member city council – most of whom have benefited from DWP union contributions.

So has the union started lobbying them?  LaBonge, Cedillo and Councilman Mike Bonin said no.

A call to the DWP union was not returned.

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