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PERSPECTIVE ON LOS ANGELES : City Council Must Answer to All : Fairness and fiscal responsibility demand that it stand up to threats by DWP unions and not abdicate its duty.

September 05, 1993|MARVIN BRAUDE | Marvin Braude represents the 11th Councilmanic District.

As if the financial waters roiling Los Angeles city government were not murky enough, two labor unions at the Department of Water and Power have thrown into the caldron a toxic potion to sicken the residents.

The leaders of these unions--the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the Engineers and Architects--seem intent on ignoring painful economic realities: City government has no funds to pay higher salaries, and utility bills are so high that many people can no longer afford them. No other city employees have had raises since 1991, and businesses are struggling to survive our slow-healing recession.

Rather than acknowledging obvious economic facts, sharing the pain with other city workers and riding out tough times, these unions chose to strike.

In an effort to head off this public employee strike, the City Council last Tuesday voted on an informal offer to all Department of Water and Power employees of a 9% raise over the next four years. Needless to say, giving high-level DWP managers, who already earn up to $130,000 a year, a 9% raise is unnecessary, unwise and unaffordable.

I asked myself how I as a public official could support such increases at this point. The financial problems plaguing the city are many and the conclusions they spawn are grave.

First, there simply is no money for raises for any city employees, including police officers, who have worked without a contract for three years.

Second, if additional funds can be found from increased efficiencies, layoffs or new revenues (as in higher taxes), they would first have to be applied to meeting the city's current $40-million budget deficit.

Third, if funds above $40 million should materialize, they would be better earmarked to help offset the $150-million budget shortfall expected next year.

Finally, in a blue-sky scenario, if funds in excess of $190 million could be found, wouldn't it be wiser to use them for additional police and to replace aging patrol cars, many driven more than 150,000 hard miles, before even considering increases for DWP workers?

Beyond the painful financial facts, there is a matter of fairness. What justification would there be in giving salary increases to workers in one city department while leaving others behind, especially since, in most job categories, DWP workers are already better paid? If the City Council took such action, other public employees would apply tremendous pressure on the council for equal treatment, and rightly so.

For these reasons and more, I simply could not support the DWP salary offer and voted against it. What are the other reasons? They have less to do with economics and more to do with how a city is supposed to be run.

To justify higher salary demands, the unions remind the council that DWP workers have the ability to shut down the power system and not to fix it when it breaks. These not-so-subtle threats are meant to intimidate elected officials and frighten the public.

The theory behind these threats is that people will be so afraid of being without water and power that they will pressure the council to accede to the unions' demands, even though this would only guarantee increased utility rates and higher bills, as well as impossible labor negotiations with other employees and intolerable budget deficits.

Some may believe this to be an acceptable price to pay for labor peace. But to me, the issue is simple: Who governs Los Angeles? Is it the labor unions, who use threats and coercion to get higher pay while other public employees face pay freezes or cuts and layoffs, or is it the people, through their elected representatives?

The answer is obvious. Los Angeles did not become a great city by succumbing to blackmail, nor will it remain one if it begins now.

Los Angeles--the people and the City Council--must stand up to this blatant effort to wring more money from an already strapped city government and from already overburdened citizens. We cannot tolerate power outages or the threat of them. We cannot accept our taps running dry. The city must take whatever steps are necessary to prevent this from happening.

The people of Los Angeles, who are complaining already about high utility bills, must insist that their City Council say a resounding "no" to higher salaries.

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