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Ron Kaye: Glendale's decision, L.A's problem

This is a tale of two cities — yours and mine, each with its own water and power utility companies.

In your city, base rates for electricity did not go up for six years until the City Council narrowly approved a plan last week to raise rates by nearly 29% compounded over five years amid warnings that the utility could go broke by 2017.

In my city, rates soared more than 50% during that same period of time with near unanimous votes of City Council every time in the face of warnings the utility could go broke without the money. Hefty increases are planned for the next five years as well.

In your city, Glendale Water & Power employees worked without a contract for two years, suffered the indignity of having their wages unilaterally cut by the city in June, and faced a significant reduction in the number of workers.

In my city, utility workers have gotten huge pay raises year after year — up to 6% for five years and as much as 4% more recently, even as many other city workers were getting nothing and having to pay more for pensions and health care. In addition, as many as 1,400 city workers were transferred to the L.A. Department of Water and Power to protect their jobs when the city’s General Fund was running out of money.

You live in Glendale, which has a long history of fiscal responsibility.

I live in Los Angeles, which has a long history of fiscal irresponsibility.

Lucky you, unlucky me!

“Our employees haven’t had cost-of-living increases since 2008. We have shared the increase in medical 50-50,” City Manager Scott Ochoa told the Council during last week’s debate on rate hikes.

“When you consider that our employees pay a greater share of their own employment than anybody in this region, and possibly anybody in the state, it will ultimately have an impact when raises are being given at different levels on three sides of us,” Ochoa said.

“It’s a situation where if we can’t afford it, we can’t give it,” he added, “and if we can’t give it, we’re telling our employees just not to ask for it. The council expressed its leadership on the subject by imposing on IBEW. And that has had its reverberations, not even in Glendale, but throughout the region still today.”

Glendale’s tough stand in the face of demands by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, has indeed reverberated in my city, where giving into the union’s bully boss Brian D’Arcy has become a fact of life and led to an astronomical IBEW wage premium.

Historically, in L.A., negotiations with the IBEW have amounted to nothing more than blackmail.

D’Arcy puts on the table a long series of demands for outrageous increases in wages and benefits and threatens to strike and cut off water and power in the nation’s second-largest city.

Officials elected with IBEW campaign cash, or those who fear that union money may be used against them, surrender quickly.

This time around, D’Arcy has given the city an ultimatum: Officials have until Sept. 1 to approve his offer for a new four-year contract, although the current contract doesn’t expire until a year after that.

It’s a sign of the changing times that the offer would defer the 4% raises due this October, saving $25 million, until the last year of the new contract and there would be no raises until then, although it will do nothing to solve the wage disparities with other city workers who also aren’t going to get wage increases.

City Council President Herb Wesson, the former Assembly Speaker who helped create massive deficits in the state, and his colleagues — most of them beholden to the IBEW for their positions — are in a mad rush to approve the deal quickly.

Wesson canceled the council’s regular meeting Friday to hold an extraordinary joint committee hearing to stage a public relations event to sell the deal so it can be approved rapidly without any serious independent analysis.

But the Glendale reverberation is fully in evidence.

Neighborhood Councils are holding an unprecedented citywide Town Hall meeting on Monday to discuss the situation. Activists who have played a major role in recent years in successfully pushing for reforms within the L.A. Department of Water and Power, including creation of a rate payer advocate, have called for a 90-day delay for further study and to organize opposition.

For his part, Mayor Eric Garcetti has signaled that IBEW’s proposal doesn’t go anywhere far enough to bring LADWP wages in line with other city workers or workers in other utilities.

And newly-elected City Controller Ron Galperin — the only independent voice serving in city elective office — dropped a bombshell on Thursday by releasing a report that exposed just how big the IBEW wage premium is.

Base salaries for utility workers at just under $95,000 a year are $216 higher than those for police and fire employees, but they get 16.6% more in overtime and other premiums compared to 9.2% extra for public safety workers and 1.2% for civilian employees.

On average, IBEW members are paid 20% to 40% more than civilian employees even when they do the same jobs like garage attendants, janitors and accountants.

Much of the wage disparity is caused by existing contract provisions that include more than 600 separate pay codes for overtime, hazardous situations, meal reimbursements, and bonuses for inclement weather, cement work and operating special equipment, Galperin reported.

It’s a hopeful sign that the reverberation from Glendale’s stand has helped spark even this much debate, but it will test the new mayor’s toughness and the community’s ability to mobilize opposition to stop the City Council from accepting an offer made out D’Arcy’s “generosity,” as one member newly-elected with nearly $90,000 in IBEW money called it, warning that rejection could trigger “anger, frustration, disappointment and that can turn into a strike.”

It’s the same old tough luck story for the public: Give them the money or they strike.

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RON KAYE can be reached at kayeron@aol.com. Share your thoughts and stories with him.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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