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Los Angeles City Elections 2013

Labor's place in the L.A. mayor's race

Do voters see public employee unions as the angels or the adversaries in the May 21 election, and are they right?

April 24, 2013|By The Times editorial board
  • City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel tours WET Design, a "green" technology firm in Sun Valley. She was joined by Simbowa Wright, of SEIU Local 721, left, and Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721.
City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel tours WET Design, a… (Los Angeles Times )

Bad news, apparently, for mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel: She has broad support from public employee unions in her race against Eric Garcetti.

Let's run through that again. Greuel has the direct backing of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and the largest city civilian employee organization, the Service Employees International Union, Local 721, both of which can and do spend millions of dollars and mobilize thousands of members to support their candidates. She also has the backing of the union representing Department of Water and Power workers and of the Los Angeles Police Protective League, which represents most city police officers.

And why is that bad for Greuel? Because according to a USC Price/Los Angeles Times poll released Sunday, 46% of eligible voters said Greuel cared more about powerful public employee unions than the city as a whole. Only 26% said the same about Garcetti, if only because he didn't get the endorsements.

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So public-sector union support may hurt almost as much as it helps in the May 21 election.

What's going on? Do voters see public employee unions as the angels or the adversaries, and are they right? Why do so many commentators (and occasional Los Angeles Times editorials) express concern about labor's influence in city affairs?

Let's be clear: Los Angeles city employees for the most part do good work and, in so doing, provide the services that guarantee a decent quality of life for most residents and, in emergencies, keep us safe from harm and connected to lifelines like water, power, paramedic response and police protection. Nor is there anything inherently destructive about public-sector unions, which bargain for employees, protect their rights and advocate for their proper treatment.

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But both in and outside of Los Angeles, blame is increasingly laid on city workers, their unions, their salaries and their benefits (especially their retirement packages) for the reductions in services and shaky balance sheets that have been exacerbated by a deep recession and enduring hard times.

Municipal employees, for their part, note that they are hardly getting rich. They say that in addition to the usual anti-union sentiment, they are also facing resentment from private-sector workers who have lost their pensions or who suffered layoffs or pay cuts. Why, city workers wonder, are they not embraced as front-line warriors for all employees who are desperately hanging on to hard-won workplace rights?

That discussion is beside the point. The basic economics of local government are in the midst of an overhaul, and there will be — must be — changes, especially in pension benefits, if cities are to remain viable.

Over the next five years, the cost of pensions for civilian city workers is expected to increase 45%. That's money that could otherwise be spent repaving 440 miles of streets. Meanwhile, "unfunded liabilities" — the gap between employee contributions coming in and the amount of money that will ultimately be owed to retirees — are projected to grow to $6 billion, up nearly 50%.

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City workers should be treated properly, in retirement as well as on the job, but job security for them and continuity of services for the residents of Los Angeles require that public employee unions be prepared to relinquish some benefits that were given them by irresponsible management bargaining.

Candidates such as Greuel and Garcetti should be judged not by how fiercely they support any particular union demand or any given labor organization, but by how resolute they are in putting the interests of the city first. Voters are right to worry about a candidate's ties to labor, not because unions are evil but because they are powerful interests that compete with constituents for the allegiance of elected officials. The same is true when the clout is exercised by real estate developers, chambers of commerce or any group other than those who should come first: residents, constituents, voters.

Public employee unions stand out as the most consequential of those interests because they can and often do raise enough money or mobilize enough people to make a difference in local elections, so they win leverage over officeholders and, at contract time, in effect have a place on both sides of the table and can dictate terms that are not in the city's best long-term interest.

Of course, union negotiators are simply doing their jobs when they seek higher compensation for their members. The fault lies at least as much with management — the elected officials who bring or lack the vision and guts to hold firm at the bargaining table when necessary on behalf of city residents.

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