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Mayor's deal with big union could spur agreements with other city workers

Villaraigosa's tentative pact with a coalition representing 19,000 workers will ease L.A.'s budget crisis. He hopes to use it to pursue savings from other municipal unions.

March 26, 2011|By Patrick J. McDonnell, Los Angeles Times

A day after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa unveiled a "watershed" labor agreement with city workers, he was quick to send a pointed message to other municipal unions.

"We will be asking all employees and departments to consider how they too can offer reasonable, responsible changes at this time of historic deficits," the mayor said Friday.

Though the pact tentatively struck with a coalition representing about 19,000 workers will help ease the city's budget crisis, its real import could be elsewhere: pressuring other city unions to follow, providing a multiplier effect — and tens of millions of dollars in additional savings. Almost half the workforce paid via the city's general revenues remains outside the deal.

By praising labor for granting significant concessions, the mayor — a former union organizer — is opting for a less provocative approach than lawmakers who have faced off stridently with public-sector unions across the country. In return for their cooperation, members of the city union coalition covered by the agreement receive a significant benefit: a no-furlough guarantee for three years.

As a sign of his commitment, the mayor declared in a memo that the furloughs for covered employees — some facing as many as 26 days off without pay — would end as of next week, even before most workers vote on the tentative pact. But, he added, should the agreement not be ratified by April 20, "a requisite number of furlough days will be imposed."

In forging the new deal, the mayor and his number crunchers are sending an unequivocal message: At a moment of galloping fiscal deficits, government workers — including police and firefighters — are going to have to pay more for their benefits, especially retiree healthcare, previously provided at no additional charge. The days of what critics label entitlement at the taxpayers' expense are coming to an end.

"We have no choice," said Eliazar "Sal" De La Cruz, a longtime municipal engineer and union coalition shop steward who backs the pact. "Either we partner with the city or the city does what it needs to do — more layoffs and more furloughs.... We're hoping the other unions come on board and we get the city back on track."

What's happening in Los Angeles is emblematic of a national syndrome. From New Jersey to California, lawmakers are scrambling for alternatives amid plunging revenue and the prospect that pension and healthcare obligations will overwhelm budgets.

L.A. city workers, including active police and firefighters, generally don't pay extra for retirement healthcare coverage for themselves and their spouses. It is included as part of their pension contribution. Yet that health benefit is costing more and more, rising at a clip of 8% to 10% a year, said Miguel Santana, the city's chief administrative officer.

Under the tentative pact with the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, affected employees would abruptly go from paying nothing for retirement health to contributing 4% of their incomes by July 1. (The change would affect current and new employees; existing retirees would see no change.) In addition, the tentative pact calls for other significant concessions, including deferred pay raises, reduced cash overtime and four new unpaid holidays each year.

In coming weeks, said Matt Szabo, the mayor's deputy chief of staff, the city plans to go to each bargaining unit with a specific target for savings. Officials are seeking "concessions and other reductions" totaling $218 million next year, Szabo said, including $58 million from the Fire Department, $114 million from the police and $46 million from non-coalition unions representing civilian employees.

Those reductions, along with the almost $70 million in savings anticipated from the coalition pact, would go a long way toward filling a budget gap estimated at $350 million next year.

On Friday, other labor representatives weren't keen to comment. "We don't negotiate in the press and the newspaper, and we'd like to see the mayor honor that principle as well," said Pat McOsker, president of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles.

If the unions balk, other remedies, including furloughs and layoffs, remain on the table.

In a broader context, both the mayor and union representatives said the accord underscored the importance of collective bargaining at a time when labor and government are engaged in ugly campaigns in places such as Wisconsin, Indiana and New Jersey.

"When they're treated with respect, public-sector employees are willing to look at a problem and share in the sacrifice if it is needed," said Maria Elena Durazo, leader of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. "We can't keep blaming city employees and public employees for the entire economic downturn."

patrick.mcdonnell@latimes.com

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