City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, who recommended the pension… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)
A Los Angeles employee relations officer delivered a stinging defeat to the city's labor leaders Thursday, saying that they failed to meet a procedural deadline for challenging a hotly contested rollback in public employee pension benefits.
Hearing Officer Luella Nelson recommended that the Employee Relations Board, a five-member panel that decides labor disputes at City Hall, dismiss a challenge to the City Council's decision to cut pension pay for employees hired after July 1.
Council members voted to scale back pension benefits and increase the retirement age in October 2012. That initiative, which applied only to new hires, was touted as a way to save the city up to $4.3 billion over 30 years. But it drew fierce opposition from the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, which argued that the council had violated city and state labor laws by approving the changes without formal labor negotiations.
Nelson's 23-page report could trigger a new legal battle over the city's pension costs. If the employee board upholds Nelson's recommendation next month, the union coalition would need to go to court to get it overturned.
"We disagree with the decision and believe we filed our challenge in a timely way," the group said in a prepared statement. "We intend to take it up with the full Employee Relations Board at its next session. The coalition also has legal actions pending before the Superior Court on this issue, which will move forward."
City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the high-level budget official who recommended the pension changes, welcomed Thursday's report and called the pension cuts "a significant part" of the city's effort to reduce a long-standing deficit.
"The report chronicles in extensive detail the numerous attempts the city made to build a consensus on a new pension plan with our civilian bargaining units, as we did successfully with police officers, firefighters" and Department of Water and Power workers, Santana said. "Unfortunately, we could never get beyond the discussion of whether formal negotiations were required."
The pension rollback drew boisterous protests last year from city workers, who compared then-Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa — a backer of the reduction in benefits — to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, known for having an antagonistic relationship with organized labor. Union activists donned the "cheesehead" hats favored by Green Bay Packers fans and interrupted one council meeting with shouts of "We are not Wisconsin!"
The union complaint was filed in December 2012. After reviewing dozens of documents, Nelson concluded that the coalition did not submit its challenge within 90 days of learning that the city intended to unilaterally impose the new pension reductions, as required.
The increase in the retirement age was backed by Mayor Eric Garcetti, who voted for the changes while he was a councilman running for citywide office. It also became an issue in this year's mayor's race, with Garcetti's opponent — then-City Controller Wendy Greuel — arguing that the city should have negotiated the pension changes with city unions.