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DWP Strikers Shout Down Contract Offer : Labor: After raucous voice vote, negotiators are pessimistic about settling the nine-day walkout. No major outages are reported.


Striking workers from the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power overwhelmingly rejected the city's latest contract offer during a raucous mass meeting Wednesday night, sending the longest walkout in DWP history into its ninth day today.

The rejection by the 8,500-member International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18 came at a delicate time in the negotiations and indicated a widening of the gap between the two parties, according to officials with both the union and city.

"There does not appear to be any light at the end of the tunnel," said one city official involved in the negotiations, who asked not to be named. "We came close and now we're drifting farther apart. We all have to be prepared for a long siege."

In an ear-splitting voice vote, thousands of striking city utility workers roared their opposition to the 9% salary increase that the city offered over the next three years. Earlier in the day, the union's negotiating committee had voted 18 to 7 against the offer.

Jammed inside a Burbank union hall and overflowing into a supermarket parking lot, union members derided the first city offer formally presented to them and vowed to keep up their picketing until city negotiators make more concessions.

The union leadership said it presented the offer to the members because the city has been strong-arming the leadership in recent days to accept its offer. The city has made no formal offer to the other union involved in the strike, the 2,500-member Engineers and Architects Assn.

"They think I'm going to get on my knees and say, 'Yes, sir,' " Brian D'Arcy, the electrical union's business manager, said of the city negotiators. "You can see what the mood is."

The biggest sticking point in the standoff has been wages.

Originally, the city offered no pay increase. On the eve of the strike, the City Council offered 9% over four years--no retroactive increase for last year and then 2%, 3% and 4% in succeeding years.

The union leadership rejected that, saying they want a multiyear contract with the same 3.25% increase offered to workers at private utilities.

Earlier this week, after marathon talks through the Labor Day weekend, the council altered its wage formula slightly, offering no increase for last year and 3% in each of the three remaining years. That was the plan voted down Wednesday night.

Most objectionable about the latest offer, union members said, was the city's insistence that no retroactive salary increase be applied for last year. Employees have been working without a contract. But there also were sticking points on issues such as a parking plan and the binding arbitration of grievances.

Amid the continuing standoff, water and power service remained relatively problem-free on Wednesday although DWP officials stressed that the longer the strike lingers, the greater the likelihood of a major breakdown.

Although power usage decreased slightly over the holiday weekend, the recent hot weather is putting an additional strain on the system, officials said.

An early morning power outage affected 840 homes in Brentwood but workers restored the electricity by afternoon. The outage came within blocks of Mayor Richard Riordan's home but did not affect his service, officials said.

Union leaders contend that DWP officials have been downplaying the problems facing the water and power systems.

"The DWP is putting out a tremendous amount of disinformation, and the media is falling for a great deal of it," the electrical workers union said in a flyer distributed on the picket line. "The system is falling apart; you know it; the department knows it, and very soon the public will be made sadly aware of it."

Already, the strike has left its imprint on DWP's 1.3 million customers. Users will receive estimated bills for this month because the DWP does not have enough workers to read the meters. When the strike is over, the bills will be adjusted, officials said.

The DWP, meanwhile, postponed two public hearings scheduled by the Board of Water and Power Commissioners to receive public comments on a proposed 4.75% electric rate increase. The union has used the rate increase issue to press its case.

While union members were voting the City Council was meeting behind closed doors, but the nearly four-hour session produced no resolution.

"Nothing has changed," said Council President John Ferraro after the meeting.

Times staff writer James Rainey contributed to this story.

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