Wendy Greuel visits a green technology firm earlier this month. “I… (Al Seib, Los Angeles Times )
Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel is pushing to reopen talks with the city's employee unions over a recent decision to reduce public employee pension benefits, sparking alarm from some at City Hall.
Looking to differentiate herself from City Councilman Eric Garcetti on labor issues, the city controller has asserted for months that Los Angeles leaders failed to properly negotiate with its unions before hiking the retirement age and rolling back pension benefits for newly hired civilian city workers.
But Greuel is now going further, saying she would head back to the bargaining table on the pension changes, which take effect July 1 — the same day the new mayor takes office. Those talks, she said, would keep the unions from filing a lawsuit to block implementation of the reductions, which are designed to save $4 billion over 30 years.
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"I would like to sit with the labor leaders, as I've expressed to them, to make sure we get that pension reform that they agree with," Greuel told The Times.
The changes, which were approved by the City Council last fall and backed by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, only apply to civilian workers hired after July 1 who are not at the Department of Water and Power.
In December, the Coalition for L.A. City Unions filed an unfair employee relations practices claim, saying the city "violated its duty to negotiate in good faith" before approving the pension law. In the claim, unions called for the ordinance to be rescinded.
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The challenge is scheduled to go before a city hearing officer in late May, a week after Greuel's runoff against Garcetti. That timeline makes it highly likely that the fight over the reduced pension benefits won't be resolved until a new mayor takes office, said Steven Presberg, a personnel department analyst who defends the city against unfair labor practice claims.
Councilman Bernard C. Parks, who favored the reductions, said bargaining is not necessary when dealing with the benefits of workers who have not yet been hired. And he warned that a new round of talks with union officials could delay implementation of its pension ordinance by two or three years, depending on the level of resistance from labor leaders.
"She is sending a message to the unions that the status quo is alive and well," said Parks, who backed another Greuel opponent, Councilwoman Jan Perry, in the March 5 primary. Garcetti finished first and Greuel second in the eight-candidate race.
The mayor sits on the powerful five-member committee that negotiates salaries and benefits of its employees. Union leaders have strongly suggested they would go to court if they fail to achieve their goals during the city's hearing process.
Greuel said she supports the pension changes, which include an increase in the retirement age for new hires from 55 to 65 and the elimination of healthcare benefits for spouses of retired city workers. But she also has hammered Garcetti over the council's vote, saying he and his colleagues should have bargained "in good faith" before imposing them.
While making those statements, Greuel has locked up endorsements from an array of public employee unions, who frequently spend big in city election campaigns. Appearing last week before the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, Greuel offered comparisons between Garcetti and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who pushed for the removal of collective bargaining rights in his state.
The federation, which represents 600,000 workers, took the first step toward endorsing Greuel last week and will make its formal announcement Tuesday. Meanwhile, Garcetti questioned whether his opponent would ultimately roll back the city's drive to cut costs during a financial crisis.
"She's putting all the pension savings at risk," said Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman.
If Greuel brings the unions back to the table for collective bargaining, every proposal they suggest will need to be carefully examined and reviewed by the city, said Presberg, the personnel department analyst. That process could force the city to engage in a protracted effort to show that it is at an "impasse" — and needs to impose the pension reductions, he said.
Cheryl Parisi, who works with the city employee union that represents clerks, librarians and 911 operators, said she was encouraged by Greuel's message. Garcetti, she said, made a public commitment to collective bargaining in 2011, only to approve the pension reductions last fall without full negotiations.
"He made a choice. He understood what was at stake," said Parisi, executive director of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 36. "That decision is now on the path to litigation."
Parisi contends that, once the economy improves, the reduced pension benefits will make it difficult for the city to recruit and retain new workers. Her union also has suggested that a higher retirement age will create problems for clerks who suffer from repetitive stress disorders due to typing.
Councilman Paul Krekorian, who heads the council's budget committee, said Greuel's support for more negotiations "doesn't make sense" — given her statement in favor of the pension changes. He argued that those changes were passed to spare current city employees from additional job cuts.
"It was a necessary step to take," he said. "It was essential to balancing our budget."