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Unions threaten lawsuit over L.A. city pension changes

September 25, 2012|By David Zahniser
  • Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a press conference on Sept. 19. Unions have threatened to sue should the City Council pass a plan to roll back pension benefits. Credit:
Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa at a press conference on Sept. 19. Unions have… (Irfan Khan / Los Angeles…)

A group that represents 18,000 employees at Los Angeles City Hall warned Tuesday it will sue if the City Council enacts a plan to roll back pension benefits and boost the retirement age to 65.

With the pension plan up for a vote Tuesday, lawyers for the Coalition of L.A. City Unions sent a letter to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa threatening a lawsuit and warning the reductions in retirement benefits will cause "irreparable harm."

Hundreds of city employees have scheduled a morning rally at City Hall, where they plan to argue that Villaraigosa and the City Council have launched an attack on unions similar to those waged in Wisconsin, where Republican Gov. Scott Walker has battled unions for much of his first term.

"This isn't pension reform. This is pension reduction," said Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union Local 721. The union coalition represents librarians, clerks, groundskeepers, custodians, crime lab analysts, tree trimmers, helicopter mechanics and sanitation workers, among others.

The budget plan is backed by Villaraigosa and Council President Herb Wesson and is expected to save $30 million to $70 million over a five-year period. Under the plan, spouses of retired workers would no longer be eligible for city-funded healthcare. City employees would see their take-home pay reduced in years when their retirement fund is battered by the stock market. And workers who attempt to retire at 55 after 30 years of city employment would receive pensions that are roughly one-third the amount provided to existing employees.
The proposal would cover only newly hired civilian city workers, not existing ones. Police officers, firefighters and employees at the Department of Water and Power also would be exempt from the changes.

A handful of council members -- including Dennis Zine, Joe Buscaino and Mitchell Englander -- have already come out in favor of the proposal. Even Councilman Paul Koretz, a reliable union ally, said last week that he is "very likely" to vote for it.

Labor leaders warn the changes are structured in a way that will make it more difficult for the city to cover the pension burden of existing employees. And they contend Villaraigosa and council members will violate state law by imposing pension benefit changes without formal bargaining.

"The coalition unions demand that the draft ordinance immediately be withdrawn, and that any future proposal ... be the product of good-faith negotiations between the parties," wrote coalition attorney Anthony Segall in a letter submitted to the council.

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