Last spring, Brian D'Arcy, who represents employees of the Department of Water and Power and is one of the city's most influential union chiefs, even publicly accused the mayor of trying to "scapegoat union members" for problems at the DWP. More recently, mayoral surrogates questioned the police union's commitment to public safety after its president, concerned about plummeting overtime payments, called on the city to suspend the hiring of new officers.
Some union advocates privately accuse the mayor of rank opportunism: He champions layoffs and other contentious policies, they say, in a transparent bid to separate himself from the movement and jump-start his next career, be it in public office or the private sector.
Not so, says Villaraigosa. As an elected official, he says, he is obliged to put the public's interest above those of municipal employees and their representatives.
"I've said to my staff, again and again, we're with labor when their interests align with those of the public," Villaraigosa said. "When they don't, then we have to challenge them."
With the city facing a more than $300-million budget shortfall next year, new battles seem imminent on sundry fronts. On the table is a fresh round of potential spending reductions, possible layoffs and pension cutbacks for the city's 22,000 civilian workers.
The mayor — who has made pension reform one of his administration's central themes — has already crafted a modest package for police and firefighters; that proposal is slated to appear on the ballot in March. To broker the deal, the mayor's office worked closely with police and firefighter unions; they signed off on the plan, although critics called it far too limited. In that case, the mayor opted not to go to the mat for a more sweeping overhaul of police and firefighter retirement benefits.
Villaraigosa said, however, that he is signaling a tougher stance now with other city employees.
Union representatives for civilian workers have vowed to fight the mayor's plan to slice pension and retiree health benefits. It is a confrontation that the mayor — who calls the current pension system "unsustainable" — seems eager to engage in.
"You're going to see me hit hard on that one too," Villaraigosa vowed of the pension issue. "I said to the city unions, 'I want to work with you. But we're moving forward.' "
Times staff writer David Zahniser contributed to this report.