Last year, as the Los Angeles City Council prepared to roll back pensions for new city workers, one of the most powerful political players in town walked up to the podium and scolded them.
“You have totally ignored the collective bargaining process,” said Maria Elena Durazo, the leader of the LA County Federation of Labor.
Then she issued an ominous threat: “It is going to come back and haunt you.”
Durazo and leaders of city labor unions were angry the council raised the retirement age from 55 to 65 and reduced benefits for new hires. They argued the council acted illegally because it failed to formally consult the unions that represent city workers.
Courts are still considering whether cities can change pension rules for future new employees unilaterally, but Durazo and others are now punishing city councilman and mayoral hopeful Eric Garcetti for supporting the rollback, and for his earlier votes in favor of unpaid furloughs and layoffs to address budget deficits.
Last week, the labor federation – a conglomerate of unions that represents 600,000 workers countywide – endorsed Garcetti’s rival, City Controller Wendy Greuel.
But UCLA Labor Center Director Kent Wong notes that Garcetti is hardly anti-labor, as some in the labor movement would have voters believe.
“Both Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti have been friends of labor,” he said.
Unions break from labor group to back Garcetti
That’s why there’s a split among labor unions in the mayor’s race that is not reflected in the unanimous vote the federation touted for Greuel. Labor groups supporting Garcetti, including the Teamsters, longshore and teachers unions – frustrated with attacks on their candidate – refused to attend the final vote.
“We figured because of the utter disregard for Eric’s background and accomplishments, that there was no purpose to attend,” said Teamsters political director Ed Rendon.
“He was interrogated like you would interrogate an egregious, anti-union operator,” Rendon said of how Garcetti was treated in one union meeting. “It was horrendous.”
Labor unions prefer to present a united front in politics. That’s not what’s happening in the contest to succeed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.
Wednesday, Rendon stood outside a labor rally for Garcetti at a union hall in downtown L.A. He said the councilman has been more helpful than Greuel in unionizing truckers at the Port of Los Angeles and limiting the expansion of non-union stores like Walmart.
“A lot of times we have to chase and chase to try to get people to answer our call. Eric Garcetti has never been one of those people,” said Rendon.
City worker unions spend big to oppose Garcetti
Unions representing city workers, including Department of Water and Power employees and LAPD cops, spent nearly $3 million against Garcetti in the primary election, and are expected to spend at least that much in the runoff. The private sector unions backing Garcetti likely will spend a fraction of that, although they promise vigorous get-out-the-vote efforts among their members.
Bob Schoonover, who heads the largest city union – the Service Employees International Union Local 721 – said the stakes are higher for his members. He maintains Garcetti can’t be trusted when it comes to union contracts up for renewal next year.
“Eric obviously has a track record," Schoonover said recently. "There’s some things in there where he very much voted against our interests.”
The longtime labor leader said he’d rather see Greuel across the negotiating table when it comes time to talk wages and benefits for the trash truck drivers, sewer workers and mechanics he represents.
“Y'know, you can have disagreements with Wendy," he said. "But if you can actually prove to her that you’re right, she’ll see what you’re talking about.”
Pension vote one reason behind union split
Historically, public and private employee unions have not always agreed. One big difference today is pensions.
Rendon of the Teamsters said he’s comfortable with Garcetti’s vote to reduce public pension benefits for new city workers to address deep budget deficits.
“On the private sector side, our members all across this country have suffered as well,” he said. “We’ve taken concessions, we’ve taken two tier [when new employees receive less benefits]. Why should the city or county be any different?”
He noted the city council vote on pension changes last year was unanimous.
The council vote came despite warnings from the labor federation's Durazo about the effect on city workers.
"You are taking a drastic step, potentially pushing city workers into poverty when they retire," said Durazo.
Rendon said he sympathizes with his city union brethren, but argues they should be more concerned about Greuel’s new advisor, former Mayor Richard Riordan, who’s advocated far more dramatic cuts in pension benefits.
Greuel has said she is proud she has a variety of advisers. She’s also sent mixed messages.
After suggesting she might seek to re-open negotiations over pension changes, Greuel was asked to clarify her stance by another of her powerful backers: the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce.
The mayoral hopeful now says she’s comfortable with the pension reforms approved last year and would only seek talks with union leaders to avoid a lawsuit. It’s essentially the same position as Garcetti’s.
So how different would the two be on labor issues? Not much, said Wong.
“Because of the intensity of this campaign, minor differences tend to get blown out of proportion,” he said. “I think that’s what we see here.”
Voters will see a lot more of that as the May 21 runoff nears.