Los Angeles City Controller and mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel, center,… (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times )
A powerful Los Angeles County labor group that fought efforts to roll back pension costs at City Hall took a huge step Tuesday toward endorsing City Controller Wendy Greuel in the race for mayor, recommending her over opponent Eric Garcetti.
Greuel won the support of the political committee that guides the 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor after suggesting the city's handling of retirement benefits resembled the leadership of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican reviled by organized labor, according to audio obtained by The Times.
As she has in previous closed-door union meetings, Greuel accused Garcetti of failing to engage in collective bargaining — a veiled reference to a pivotal vote on pensions. Last fall, Garcetti and other council members voted to raise the retirement age and reduce pension benefits for newly hired civilian city employees. The action came over objections from unions that argued the city failed to properly negotiate the changes.
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The city's lawyers contend that collective bargaining — in which management and employee representatives meet and discuss issues "in good faith" — is not required for workers who have not yet been hired. In her remarks Tuesday to labor officials, Greuel said Garcetti promised one union group that he would follow collective bargaining but then backtracked.
My "opponent said, 'This will not be a 'Scott Walker Los Angeles.' This will not be Wisconsin. We will support collective bargaining.' And what happened? The exact opposite happened," said Greuel, in audio of her remarks obtained by The Times.
Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman defended the councilman's handling of retirement benefits, saying Garcetti had negotiated "hundreds of millions of dollars in real pension reform." He also suggested that Greuel would side with unions who are now challenging the pension rollback. "While Ms. Greuel won't say it publicly, it appears she would undo the city's pension reforms," he said.
Greuel said she supports both the pension reductions and collective bargaining. She declined to say whether she would support a union challenge that has been filed over the pension changes. The challenge is partly based on the assertion that bargaining did not take place.
"I haven't seen the challenge," she said. "I believe, however, that there should have been collective bargaining."
The exchange comes as both candidates try to build an edge in the 10 weeks before the May 21 runoff. Greuel and Garcetti are trying to raise money and win backing from key groups that have not yet endorsed a candidate. In addition to campaign funding, the federation can muster large numbers of volunteers to work phone banks, knock on doors and prod voters to the polls.
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The Times listened to recorded copies of the candidates' opening statements to officials with the labor federation. Garcetti stressed that he had pushed for a living-wage requirement at hotels near Los Angeles International Airport, brought new jobs to Hollywood, opposed Wal-Mart superstores and advocated immigration reform. "I'm doing more to promote labor … on issues that you care about than anybody else in this race," he told the group.
Part of the federation's clout comes from its ability to communicate with its vast membership on political issues. In 2005, the group backed then-Mayor James K. Hahn and spent nearly $373,000 on mailers and other expenses designed to turn out its union members on election day, according to Ethics Commission records.
Maria Elena Durazo, the top official at the federation, was one of two dozen union leaders who opposed last year's pension rollback at City Hall. She told council members that they were "potentially pushing city workers into poverty." Durazo also warned lawmakers that their votes would "come back and haunt" them.
The pension reductions, which take effect July 1, are intended to help address an ongoing budget crisis and save the city $4 billion over three decades. "Any change to the pension [proposal] would put the $4 billion in savings that the city expects to receive over 30 years in jeopardy," said City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana, the top budget official.
Greuel won 70% of the labor committee's vote, a little more than the two-thirds needed for the endorsement. The endorsement recommendation must be ratified by the federation's executive committees and delegates. Those actions generally are considered procedural.
Labor has played a pivotal role for Greuel, who came in second behind Garcetti in last week's primary election. A campaign group partly funded by the Department of Water and Power employees' union spent $2 million promoting her. The city police officers union spent hundreds of thousands of dollars more. Both unions will negotiate new contracts with the next mayor.
In her remarks Tuesday, Greuel attacked Garcetti for labeling her labor backers as special interests. "We do not need anyone to suggest that you are baggage, that you are a special interest," she added.
In the closed-door session, Garcetti sought to reassure labor leaders that he is a staunch ally and hadn't characterized them as a special interest. "Let me be clear. The term special interests … is not something I've used to attack labor," he said.