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Greuel backs away from call for new talks over L.A. pension cuts

After earlier remarks caught the attention of the Chamber of Commerce, the mayoral candidate says she just wants to meet with unions in an effort to avoid a lawsuit over reduced benefits for new city hires.

March 19, 2013|By David Zahniser and James Rainey, Los Angeles Times
  • Shomari Davis, business representative for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 11, announces the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor's endorsement of Wendy Gruel for mayor of Los Angeles.
Shomari Davis, business representative for the International Brotherhood… (Anne Cusack / Los Angeles…)

Los Angeles mayoral candidate Wendy Greuel backed away Tuesday from her call for a new round of negotiations over employee pension cuts, saying she wants only to meet with labor leaders to discuss ways of avoiding a lawsuit over the reductions.

Greuel, the city controller, has been attacking City Councilman Eric Garcetti, her opponent, for weeks over his vote to roll back retirement benefits for new hires, saying he and his colleagues failed to properly negotiate the changes. On Friday, she told The Times that she wanted to begin new talks with labor leaders to "make sure we get that pension reform that they agree with."

Those remarks prompted the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, one of Greuel's key backers, to call on her Tuesday to provide an explanation. Afterward, Greuel told The Times that she wants only to talk to union leaders, not reopen negotiations over the benefit reductions approved by the City Council last fall.

"I want to work with them to avoid that lawsuit. But I believe in those pension reforms and do not want to roll them back," she said.

Greuel's message last week was somewhat different. She told The Times on Friday that she favored the pension reductions. But she also suggested a more formal revisiting of the issue with unions that are threatening a lawsuit over the retirement benefit changes. "So I would sit down with them and ask them to do collective bargaining," she said at the time. "Which means yes, open that up to have those discussions."

Backers of the pension cuts have warned that a new round of collective bargaining could delay implementation of the pension cutbacks, designed to save $4 billion over three decades, by up to three years. City officials would probably have to make new financial concessions during such talks, they contend.

City employee unions have filed a challenge over the pension reductions, saying officials failed to negotiate in "good faith." The unions want the cuts, which apply only to new civilian employees hired after July 1, to be rescinded. That challenge will not be resolved until after a new mayor takes office, personnel officials said.

City lawyers say collective bargaining is not required when dealing with benefits for future employees. Greuel sided with the unions, who took the opposite view. She later secured the endorsement of nearly every employee group represented at City Hall.

The clash over pension reductions has highlighted one of the few differences in the records of Greuel and Garcetti, both pro-labor Democrats.

After Greuel's remarks appeared Tuesday in The Times suggesting she would back new collective bargaining on the pension rollbacks, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce President Gary Toebben asked Greuel to appear personally before his group. "We want to make sure we are not on opposite sides of this discussion," Toebben said.

The chamber supports the city's pension reductions and backed a short-lived proposal by former Mayor Richard Riordan to replace guaranteed pensions with 401(k)-style plans. A chamber fundraiser for Greuel's campaign Thursday has been canceled, at least for now, because of a lack of response.

Greuel and Toebben said the event was canceled because potential guests weren't given adequate notice.

Also Tuesday, Greuel secured the backing of the 600,000-member Los Angeles County Federation of Labor. During the group's announcement, union members described Greuel as trustworthy on contract issues and Garcetti, whom they did not name, as inconsistent and "deceptive."

That was a reference to the vote to reduce pension benefits and raise the retirement age from 55 to 65 for new civilian employees. Labor leaders accused Garcetti of going back on a pledge to protect collective bargaining.

"If somebody gives us an answer we do not like, that's OK, we can deal with that," said Thom Davis, a vice president for the federation. "What we have a problem with is when someone is being deceptive, tells us one thing and then does another."

Garcetti defended his vote Tuesday at an event where he received the backing of Councilman Paul Koretz, one of the city employee unions' closest allies on the 15-member council.

"I believe in collective bargaining rights for our current employees and was very clear about that," Garcetti said. "The 12-0 vote that we had in council about future employees was based on the strong legal advice that we can establish a new retirement" benefit for future employees, outside of the collective bargaining process.

Like Garcetti, Koretz voted for the reductions in pension benefits for new hires. Standing next to Garcetti outside Canter's deli in the Fairfax district, Koretz said he didn't like voting for the pension rollback but ultimately concluded it was necessary to balance the budget.

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