Patt Morrison Asks

Brian D'Arcy, DWP union's power guy

A third-generation union man, he heads the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, the Department of Water and Power's biggest union.

Sometimes L.A. politics seem like patty-cake, but when Brian D'Arcy gets in the game, the game gets serious. He's a third-generation union man, and the union he heads, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, is the DWP's biggest and a huge player at City Hall. In some quarters, the IBEW's DWP contracts — worth as much as six figures — are a symbol of overweening union power. The political action committee he co-chairs and the IBEW supports, Working Californians, cobbled together the largest amount spent on behalf of Wendy Greuel's mayoral bid, about $4 million. The IBEW isn't crying "uncle." D'Arcy has zest for the fray and one gear: forward.

First things first: John Shallman, Wendy Greuel's campaign consultant, has said your union's support became "damaging to the campaign."

That doesn't surprise me — the guy who's directly responsible for the tone-deaf campaign she ran. What else would he say? The hit on her was, somehow, she was the DWP candidate. [Voters] merged the employer and the union. It could have been deflected. They never did, and they ran a crappy campaign. The larger message is that some people will do anything to get elected — the same people [Garcetti's camp] who wanted our endorsement all of a sudden turn it into a pejorative.

PUBLIC RECORDS: DWP salaries database

Why the antipathy toward public unions like yours?

If you sell the idea that if others are dragged down then somehow you are elevated — I find it offensive. Does it help somebody if my members make less? They are 22% of the [DWP] budget. DWP union workers could take zero [pay] and it isn't going to fix the city budget. The right-wing apparatchik has decided workers are the enemy, and we represent them.

My people are of all ethnic and economic strata. They coach Little League. The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus — they rebuilt a battered women's shelter, they give school supplies to underprivileged schools, they write to the troops. To vilify them? If you want to vilify me, I'm fair game, but vilifying my members is just wrong. They're middle-class people, and somehow that's a crime in this economy.

When my dad started out, even when I started out, it wasn't an unusual thing to be a union member. When I got married the first time, 1971, it was like a Springsteen song, living in Jersey, got a union card and a wedding coat. Now it's hard.

You were a chemical worker in New Jersey. What brought you to California?

I'd finished my degree in sociology and thought, "I can't stand the weather." I had to put a propane heater under the crankcase of my VW bus to get it warm enough to turn over. I got a second degree. I began working as a union organizer and came to L.A. when IBEW offered me a job.

Some of your workers make 25% to 50% more than non-DWP city workers. My father was a power company lineman for 40 years, and it's a dangerous job, but not all of your 8,000-plus members are risking their lives every day.

That's fair. But they don't all make that much more [than City Hall employees]. We have a couple of garage attendants, and [critics] say they make 40% more than those at City Hall. Well, I don't represent [the garage workers] at City Hall. The clerical part of membership is substantial, maybe 2,500, predominantly female, predominantly single mothers. When we had our strike in '93, the women were the toughest. They had the most to lose. So if they make $60,000 a year, that's why, and if people don't like that —

What do working people have? Do they just [do as they're] told? Or can they participate in politics, go on strike? I don't think that's something we should apologize for. My responsibility is to look after the welfare of my members.

Why should DWP workers get better pay than city employees? Isn't a secretary a secretary?

The predominant part of our clerical force are customer service reps. They deal with pretty cranky people all day long.

[DWP employees' pay] isn't going to change rates. People in L.A. have low rates. People don't understand that 40% of their bill is City Hall-generated, [that] DWP is the city's bill collector. The City Council and mayor made [trash fees on your DWP bill] higher to pay for cops.

About 1,500 city employees were transferred to the DWP rather than being laid off; their salaries rose too.

They got training. I said: "Send over [City Hall] tree trimmers and we'll train them to do live line clearance." They make giraffes on the front lawn; we do live [power] line clearance. It isn't the same.

Voters approved a DWP ratepayer advocate. What's your thinking about that?

I'm ambivalent; the union never entered the fray. If we did, we might not have one. We bought an ad suggesting the city bring together people [to study the idea first]. Clearly they didn't take our advice.

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