Members of the Los Angeles Engineers and Architects Assn., whose 8,000 members have been without a contract for almost two years, disrupted a speech by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa on Friday, loudly complaining that he is shortchanging them while giving workers at the Department of Water and Power a bigger raise.
"Equal pay for equal work," chanted three dozen or so of the union members, who wore T-shirts with rattlesnakes and the slogan "Will Strike If Provoked."
Villaraigosa, who was speaking to a group of Los Angeles artists and political leaders at the Caltrans offices on Main Street, tried to continue over the demonstration, but the chants continued, briefly drowning him out.
"One of the great things about this country," he then said, "is people who like to do that."
City Councilman Tom LaBonge, attending the same event -- honoring two upcoming exhibitions of Los Angeles art and architecture at Paris' Centre Pompidou -- intervened to persuade the demonstrators to quiet down and let the mayor finish. LaBonge promised demonstrators that he would share their issues with the mayor and urge him to restart negotiations with the association.
With that, and with California Highway Patrol officers threatening to eject the group from the building courtyard, the chants subsided.
When it came time to acknowledge LaBonge, Villaraigosa introduced him as "my great friend and mediator."
Afterward, however, members of the union said they intended to continue to pressure Villaraigosa, a former union organizer far more accustomed to picketing than to being on the receiving end of union protest.
"He's turned his back on us," said David T. Yoshihara, who works at the Information Technology Agency. "We supported him, and now this."
Members of the Engineers and Architects fill technical jobs in a number of departments, including transportation and information technology. Their union is asking for a pay package equivalent to the one given DWP workers last year. That package guarantees most DWP employees pay hikes of at least 19% over five years and could, with inflation, go higher. It was negotiated during the administration of Mayor James K. Hahn, who has since said he opposed the package. Nevertheless, it was forwarded to the City Council, which approved it last September.
Since then, the Engineers and Architects have agitated for a similar deal, promising an aggressive campaign to make their grievances public. The Teamsters union announced its support for the association this week, and its leaders have pledged to stage protests at the upcoming Academy Awards and Los Angeles Marathon.
Friday's protest marked the first time, according to several of the demonstrators, that the union has tried to disrupt Villaraigosa's schedule.
Although the demonstrators quieted down after LaBonge's intervention, they followed Villaraigosa as he walked back to City Hall, surrounding him and chanting.
Villaraigosa was unmoved. "We're offering them the same contract we're offering other city employees," he said. According to a union official, that amounts to 6.25% over about four years, retroactive to the expiration of the engineers' last contract.
"They have every right to want higher wages and benefits," the mayor conceded as one member thrust a finger in his face and warned that Villaraigosa was betraying his own employees. "But we're living at a time when we have got to live within our means."
The protests are a preview of what many expect when Villaraigosa releases his first city budget in the coming weeks.