Los Angeles mayoral candidates Wendy Greuel and Eric Garcetti, both liberal… (Los Angeles Times / EPA )
Los Angeles union leaders had hoped the presence of two liberal Democrats in the race for mayor would produce a robust defense of the value of government, government employees and the positive effects public sector pay and benefits have on the broader economy.
The realities of campaigning have largely precluded that, particularly in a city contending with persistent budget shortfalls and private-sector workers facing stagnant incomes, tax and fee increases, and a slow erosion of good-wage jobs.
On the campaign trail, Eric Garcetti and Wendy Greuel have struggled to be sympathetic, but not too embracing, of the defenses that unions have mounted of their members' wages and benefits.
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But in one-on-one interviews with The Times, Garcetti and Greuel expressed an affinity for the idea that gains made by public employee unions yield wider economic benefits for the city.
"I think we should look at what it takes to have good family-wage jobs. That often gets lost when people want to pit one against another," Greuel said. She added a favorite organized labor argument: "I think it's the right kind of conversation to have — for all boats to rise."
Garcetti said the first priority of government has to be providing services. But he cautioned against wholesale slashing of pay and benefits for city workers. "In tough times, people look around and see other people who they perceive to be better off," Garcetti said, "but we shouldn't make the mistake in those moments of racing to the bottom."
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Despite those sentiments, both Garcetti and Greuel have stepped carefully around public commitments to preserve wages and benefits. Both have signaled that they would be willing to ratchet benefits downward, if necessary.
Labor leaders had hopes, now mostly fleeting, that the mayor's race would become a forum for a more expansive, supportive view of the public sector — and the dangers of pushing government austerity too far.
"That just pulls the rug out from under us as a society and an economy," said Madeline Janis, national policy director at the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy, which has fought for private enterprise to pay a "living" wage.
"The place we have the remnants of a decent economy is in the public sector," she said. "And we should be seeing that as the basis for a really healthy economy. Bringing us all up is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do."
But scrutiny of public employees reached a new pitch during the Great Recession, as workers in the private sector lost jobs, work hours and health coverage, often while seeing pension benefits cut or eliminated.
By 2011, only 18% of employees outside government had pension plans that guaranteed them a set benefit on retirement. That compared to 78% of local and state government workers nationally who still stood to receive defined-benefit payments after leaving their jobs.
Resentment over such discrepancies, what some have dubbed "pension envy," partly helps explain the movement in several states to rein in the bargaining rights of public worker unions and to bring benefits down.
Kris Vosburgh, executive director of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn., said union stalwarts are "living in a fantasy land" to think that the city can continue to afford pensions and benefits higher than paid in the private sector.
"In order to execute a plan like theirs you have to have real money and we are running out of taxpayers to make those payments because they are fleeing the state," Vosburgh said. "And the taxpayers are resentful because they are doing so poorly."
Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan last year briefly pushed a ballot measure that would have replaced guaranteed pensions with 401k-style personal savings accounts. He abandoned the proposal last November, saying that he had gotten too late a start to gather the requisite signatures.
Union leaders longed for a different response to threats against their pay and pensions — workers rallying to sustain each others' livelihoods against corporate and civic managers whose pay and benefits seldom seem to get the ax.
"It's like there are two lifeboats in the ocean and there is a hole in one of them, the private sector," said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721, which represents 10,000 mostly blue-collar city employees. "Instead of pulling alongside and getting in the one good [government] boat you pull alongside and put a hole in the good boat too. Now we are going to sink both boats. And are we happy?"
The broader debate is complicated by a disagreement over how public and private sector compensation and benefits compare.