By David Zahniser
10:40 PM EST, January 1, 2014
At least 13,000 Los Angeles city employees received a 5.5% raise Wednesday, the final piece of a salary agreement that became a major financial burden during the recent economic downturn.
The pay hike means a majority of workers with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which represents non-public-safety employees such as clerks, gardeners and mechanics, have received increases totaling 24.5% since 2007, according to city budget officials.
Wednesday's raise sets the stage for a new round of salary talks between city leaders and the coalition, whose contract expires this summer. Those negotiations will pose a major test for Mayor Eric Garcetti, who campaigned as a leader who would show independence from special interests and City Hall unions.
The coalition — made up of six separate unions — backed Garcetti's opponent, former City Controller Wendy Greuel, in last year's mayoral election.
In April, as he unveiled his final budget plan, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa called on the coalition to give up the 5.5% raise, saying such a move would save the city $108 million during the current fiscal year. Coalition leaders refused to budge on the Jan. 1 pay increase, saying money for the raise was available in a special fund in Villaraigosa's budget. City Council members, including Garcetti, soon acknowledged that city leaders had no leverage to force such a concession, because the raise was part of a binding agreement backed by Villaraigosa and elected officials.
"The city is legally obligated to honor previously negotiated contracts," Garcetti spokesman Yusef Robb said this week. "Mayor Garcetti will negotiate new contracts that save money and bring reform."
In recent months, employees at the Department of Water and Power signed off on a contract that offered no pay increases over three years. The city's long-range financial forecast assumes that a similar freeze on pay hikes can be worked out with coalition members, said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, a top budget analyst who reports to the mayor and council.
"Even then, we're projecting a deficit of approximately $250 million next year," Santana said.
Victor Gordo, an attorney with the coalition, said it was too early to say what his group would ask for in the contract talks. But he said his group made pivotal sacrifices over the last five years, contributing 4% of their salaries toward their retiree healthcare and taking unpaid furlough days, among other things.
"Coalition members contributed greatly to solving the city's financial crisis at the worst point in the recession," he said.
The pay raise that went into effect this week was part of a contract approved in 2007. That agreement was renegotiated twice as the city leaders sought to spread the raises across seven years instead of five. During the same period, the city reduced the size of the workforce by 5,300 employees.
Toward the end of his tenure, Villaraigosa said he wished the 2007 labor deal had been handled differently. Garcetti expressed a similar opinion during the mayoral campaign.
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