Eric Garcetti, left, and Wendy Greuel at a recent mayoral debate at UCLA.… (Robert Gauthier, Los Angeles…)
Behind closed doors, two top candidates for Los Angeles mayor offered strong commitments of solidarity with the union representing a major chunk of civilian employees at City Hall, according to recordings of the sessions obtained by The Times.
The pledges, made last week in a members-only meeting for union workers considering a possible endorsement, demonstrates the importance of organized labor in the March 5 election, as well as the political risks of appearing too beholden to public employees as the city's top elected executive.
During her appearance, City Controller Wendy Greuel promised to be a "champion" for members of the powerful Service Employees International Union, the host of the candidate interviews, regardless of whether they work in city government.
FULL COVERAGE: L.A.'s race for mayor
Greuel took swipes at her chief rival, City Councilman Eric Garcetti, on his votes to impose worker furlough days and other cost-cutting measures during the recent budget crisis. And she accused city leaders of failing to follow collective bargaining procedures when cutting retirement benefits for future city employees — a complaint being voiced loudly by the SEIU.
"I want you to think about: When the decisions were made to lay off, who voted for layoffs?" Greuel told the union audience of about 200 at SEIU's headquarters west of downtown. "When the decisions were made for furloughs, who voted for them? When the decisions were made to not allow collective bargaining … where were [the other candidates]? Now it's important again not to just talk the talk, but to walk the walk."
When it was his turn, Garcetti repeated a pledge to make all of the city's department heads reapply for their jobs — offering a commitment that city workers would play a role in deciding which managers will remain. He also defended furloughs, which squeezed employee pay but saved $85 million over two years, as an emergency measure that helped save city jobs.
"I won't apologize for balancing our budget because we were headed off a fiscal cliff. We had to do things and do things quickly," Garcetti told the group. "If we hadn't, the depth of the cuts we would be facing and the reduction of the workers we would have had would have been devastating."
The remarks show how much Greuel and Garcetti covet the backing of a union that represents thousands of janitors, trash truck drivers and other blue-collar city workers. If SEIU weighs in on the contest to replace Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, it could mean hundreds of thousands of dollars and scores of volunteers for a favored candidate.
Frank Gilliam, dean of the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, said Greuel and Garcetti are walking a razor's edge. They want the support and financial might of city employee groups, but need to appeal to fiscally moderate and conservative voters in the San Fernando Valley and elsewhere who may be concerned about government spending, he said.
"How do you establish your bona fides as a reformer on questions of pensions and benefits for represented workers and, on the other hand, come across as a friend to labor?" Gilliam asked.
"The tightrope the smart candidate will walk is to say [to union members], 'We know the public is demanding some kind of reform and I will negotiate with you in a fair and reasonable way — and the other person already has a record of harming you.' "
SEIU members failed to reach a consensus on an endorsement. That means the final decision will rest with union leadership, which will announce its intentions by the end of the week, union spokesman Ian Thompson said.
Three other mayoral candidates — Councilwoman Jan Perry, former radio show host Kevin James and former tech executive Emanuel Pleitez — were not invited to SEIU's interviews last week. Perry, who voted with Garcetti in 2010 to back layoffs and furloughs, said she was taken aback by Greuel's statements on budget cuts approved by the City Council.
"She knows the realities of where the city was at that time. She knew what the city was going through. To say things like that is just pandering," Perry said.
Greuel and Garcetti also staked out strong positions on a labor battle at Los Angeles International Airport. SEIU has been locked in an ongoing dispute with Aviation Safeguards, a company that provides baggage claim, ticket checking and other services to airlines at LAX. Greuel told union members she supports an effort to make sure the company does not get more contracts.
Garcetti told the audience that Aviation Safeguards is at "war" with the union and promised as mayor he would have an executive at the airport agency who "respects the rights of our workers."
Joe Conlon, regional vice president of Aviation Safeguards, disputed the idea that his company is at war. He said the firm has union contracts at other airports but that its workers at LAX voted to leave the SEIU.
San Fernando Valley business leader Stuart Waldman, who has personally endorsed Greuel, said he fears Garcetti will give labor too much say on the future of general managers. But he wasn't entirely satisfied with the city controller's remarks either.
"It sounds like both candidates are doing what candidates do, which is pander to whoever they're talking to," said Waldman, president of the Valley Industry and Commerce Assn. That group is expected to announce its own endorsement in coming weeks.