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Labor Mediator Hailed for Aplomb

September 14, 1989|MEG SULLIVAN

Initially, state mediator Draza Mrvichin doesn't inspire confidence at the school districts and cities where he's called to settle labor disputes.

The 47-year-old Ventura resident, who stands 6-4 and weighs 300 pounds, wears loud Hawaiian shirts, droopy polyester pants and Birkenstocks. Until recently, his briefcase bore a sticker with his favorite saying, which translates roughly to: "You must confuse me with someone who cares."

"Originally, you'll wonder, 'What can this guy do for us?' " said David G. Miller, a Los Angeles labor attorney who represents five school districts, including the Oxnard School District.

But as school districts and cities throughout Southern California have found, looks can be deceiving. In a rare consensus, union and management officials alike say that nobody is better at jump-starting stalled contract negotiations than this 14-year veteran of the California Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Mrvichin (pronounced Merv-itch-in ) played referee in the Los Angeles Unified School District's dispute with 34,000 teachers, whose nine-day strike in May paralyzed the nation's second-largest school district.

A year earlier, the Orange Unified School District turned to him when 650 teachers were walking picket lines with 300 of their students.

Police Strike

He also helped to resolve the Corona Police Department strike of 1983 and the Riverside County Sheriff's Department strike of 1981.

"He can settle anything," said his boss, Thomas McCarthy, the mediation service's head conciliator in Southern California.

Mrvichin is also the one who, year in and year out, tends to tussles closer to home.

In 1987, he helped Ventura County arrive at a contract settlement with the Public Employees Assn. of Ventura County, or PEAVC, just 16 hours before a potentially crippling strike.

This week, he was still working on a contract dispute between the city of Oxnard, which is in the midst of a budget crisis, and its clerical, professional and firefighting personnel, who maintain that the city is short-changing them to solve it.

Earlier this year, Mrvichin helped end the most acrimonious contract dispute in memory at the Oxnard School District, where teachers had become so exasperated with the district's offers that they erected a billboard saying: "Oxnard--Home of Unhappy Teachers."

'When It's Important'

"He's the one I call when it's important," Miller said. "Draza's the best in the state."

Each year, he unites about 120 employers and their estranged workers in a big, burly bear hug. That means sometimes juggling a dozen cases at once and driving 30,000 miles a year on business.

Business will no doubt boom. School districts are increasingly strapped. The cost of health benefits for teachers is increasing, and so are teachers' salary demands, fueled by expectations from Proposition 98, which increased school funding by $1.4 billion.

Ironically, Mrvichin's approach to conciliation is to ruffle feathers.

Blunt and irreverent, Mrvichin is likely to dare a union to take the step he's been called to prevent--a strike--or berate the proponents of a settlement proposal that he finds the least bit outlandish.

"He'll say, 'Why don't you ask for the key to heaven? Your chances are about as great as getting that,' " said Stephen Silver, a Santa Monica labor lawyer who represents the Oxnard Firefighters Assn. and other unions.

Criticized for Comments

Tact is not Mrvichin's long suit. He has been criticized in negotiations for calling the women present girls. He is notorious for his comments, such as telling a county's assistant chief accounting officer that he's so cheap his shoes squeak.

"This is not brain surgery, you know," Mrvichin said.

And in rooms where the air hangs heavy with bureaucratese, the former defensive lineman for East Los Angeles Community College explains things in terms that everybody understands.

He warns city council members that if they stick to their guns on meager raises, their workers "won't be happy campers." He tells union officials with too lengthy an agenda that he is going to leave until they strip down their demands to five.

"I don't get excited till I get down to the underwear," Mrvichin said.

Along the way, he loosens tense situations and tries to win the confidence of opposing parties. He gives the impression that "he's in charge and you may not be as important as you thought you were when you came into the room," one attorney said.

"If a mediator doesn't assert himself, then the parties are still full of themselves," said Ed McClain, Ventura County employee relations officer. "You can't reach an agreement because you're still convinced how right you are and how wrong they are. This puts the situation in perspective."

Mrvichin, who worked as a janitor and union organizer before coming to mediation, credits his success to an "almost instinctive" ability to bring people together.

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