Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, left, with city Administrative… (Don Bartletti, Los Angeles…)
In a twist on a theme that has flared up on the national political stage, labor unions representing Los Angeles city workers are accusing Democratic Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa of waging war against women, saying most of his proposed layoffs would hit jobs traditionally held by female workers.
In his proposed budget now under review by the City Council, Villaraigosa calls for eliminating 231 filled positions. Individual employees who would lose jobs have not been identified, but roughly 90% of the positions targeted are clerk, secretarial and other jobs mostly held by women.
If approved, the job cuts would follow a pattern set two years ago, when women made up less than a third of the city's total workforce but constituted 54% of the layoffs called for by Villaraigosa, according to records. Dozens of child-care workers and library employees were among those let go.
Union members have raised the issue at news conferences and council budget hearings, where one city worker this month drew cheers from the audience when she told lawmakers: "This is an attack on women!"
Her comments echo recent accusations by Democrats of a Republican "war on women" over congressional efforts to roll back abortion and contraceptive rights. The local attacks, however, are being directed at Villaraigosa, who, as chairman of this summer's Democratic National Convention, has been tasked with leading the Democratic Party platform.
Villaraigosa spokesman Peter Sanders said gender "was not a factor considered" when decisions about job eliminations were being made. And City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana said hundreds of vacant positions proposed for elimination include jobs more typically held by men. He also said the number of people facing layoffs will probably shrink as workers are shifted from threatened positions into vacancies.
Torie Osborn, a former advisor to the mayor, says the fact that women may be more affected by the elimination of lower-level civil service jobs simply "reflects what is."
"We still have a gendered division of labor," said Osborn, who is running for state Assembly. "It speaks to the continuing need for women to rise in power and leadership so they're not at the bottom of the ladder."
But local union leaders say layoffs are hurting the most vulnerable city workers. Alice Goff, president of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 3090, which represents clerical employees, said her members, who are predominantly minority and female, have been hit disproportionately hard by the cuts.
Artillar Watts, a Police Department clerk for 22 years, fears she may lose her job if the mayor's proposal to lay off 159 civilians in the department is approved. If her position is cut, Watts, a single mother, says she may not be able to afford college for her teenage son.
Government has historically been a steady source of employment for women. Anti-discrimination policies allowed women and minorities to rise in the ranks with the advantage of health insurance, pensions and other benefits not always offered in the private sector, said Heidi Hartmann, president of the Institute for Women's Policy Research.
Nationwide, women make up the majority of state and local government employees, especially educators. But as state and local governments have tightened their budgets in the face of declining tax revenue and rising employee costs, women have also made up the majority of government layoffs.
As a result, job growth among women has lagged behind men's during the economic recovery, said Heather Boushey, a senior economist at the Center for American Progress. By contrast, job losses during the recession were concentrated in manufacturing and construction, industries that disproportionately employ men, Boushey said.
Fighting layoffs on gender grounds is the latest tactic of L.A. union leaders, who have accused Villaraigosa of spending too much time out of town and not doing enough to avoid job cuts.
Unions have clashed with city budget negotiators over a request that employees give up scheduled pay raises. Labor leaders have refused to reopen contract talks, saying their members previously agreed to help fund pension reform and a money-saving early retirement program in exchange for the raises.
Villaraigosa and Santana say cutting some positions is essential to closing the city's $238-million budget shortfall. But Cheryl Parisi, chairwoman of the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, says there are other ways to save money and the city is remiss in not factoring in how cuts might affect its gender balance.
The city has done much to diversify its workforce over the years, she said, adding, "It's really shocking to see this kind of rollback."
Cuts made by the mayor and council in recent years to child care, libraries and other departments suggest city officials may be out of touch with the needs of female constituents, she said. "Do we consider literacy, reading and services to kids a luxury?" she asked.
She questioned the wisdom of a city drive to hire new police officers while cutting civilian support staff. Currently, around 160 sworn police officers are performing civilian duties in the department, including staffing the city jail. Parisi she she wondered wherther priorities might be different if there were more women lawmakers at City Hall.
Only one woman sits on the 15-person City Council: Jan Perry, who terms out next year and is running for mayor.
Records show that past jobs cuts also disproportionately affected Latino workers. Although Latino and white workers made up a third of the workforce in the fall of 2009, 44% of those who lost their jobs were Latino, while only 24% were white.