Back when it could have mattered, when a single decision that put the future of the city at risk was being made, Antonio Villaraigosa showed he lacked the courage to lead, his predecessor James Hahn already had shows he was incapable leadership and Councilman Eric Garcetti showed he was lost in a mind fog that haunts him today and threatens his ability to lead the city now that he is mayor.
It was August 2005 and on the table was a contract for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, who under boss Brian D’Arcy held the power of political life and death for every politician at City Hall thanks to the generous payroll deductions of the city’s highest paid workers that he used to make and break politicians.
It was a unique contract even by city annals, granting utility workers a guaranteed 3.25 percent raise every year for five years with an inflation escalator that could raise it to 6 percent — a guarantee of 16.8 percent with a lot more possible depending on inflation, as Beth Barrett reported in the Daily News:
“Faced with more than 200 DWP workers wearing T-shirts threatening a strike, the Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday approved a controversial five-year contract that gives some of the city’s already highest-paid workers raises of up to 28 percent.
“The contract – approved 10-3 by the council – had been hotly debated for nearly two months, coming amid water-rate hikes, questions about union-wage parity, concerns about the city’s labor negotiating process and threats of a strike by Department of Water and Power workers. “
The contract was negotiated under Jimmy Hahn’s aegis but he insisted to the compliant LA Times that they correct any reference to it being his responsibility, claiming he voted against it as chair of the negotiating panel although he never used his bully pulpit to stop it.
And so it was left to Villaraigosa to decide what to do.
He knew it was a terrible deal for ratepayers, the DWP and the city and told me so at the time.
But what’s a boy who was once so poor to do when his dreams have come true and he’s just become the mayor of America’s second largest city, will soon be living in a mansion with drivers, bodyguards, cooks, cleaners, servants, hundreds of staffers at his beck and call and have the opportunity to drink $1,000 bottles of wine, sit in the best seats at exciting sports and entertainment events for free, hobnob with the rich and famous and make whoopee with so many beautiful woman.
He signed off on the deal — and why not?
D’Arcy and the IBEW had funded his tough campaign to oust Hahn after one term? Who could take seriously the warnings of all the other city unions about the DWP wage premium or worry that the next recession might be the worst in 75 years?
Tony Cardenas, now a Member of Congress, called the deal “viable and fair” and guided it through the Council with the support of Alex Padilla, now a state senator and wannabe Secretary of State of California, and Wendy Greuel, who went to on to become City Controller and candidate for mayor, only to be defeated in no small part by the lavish spending of D’Arcy and the IBEW on her behalf.
Only one of the three Council voters against the contract is still around, Bernard Parks, and only two of those who voted for it, the irrelevant Tom LaBonge who has lived off the DWP his whole career, and Eric Garcetti, who has danced around the power of the IBEW for years only to find D’Arcy preferred the candidate who was “easiest to manipulate” over himself, the candidate who was “easiest to intimidate,” in this year’s mayoral election.
That is what sets the stage for the showdown over the current proposal for a new four-year contract with the IBEW that the City Council took public Friday.
Council President Herb Wesson paraded out six Council members who represent the Valley as if they give a damn about their community to sanctify the deal and conceal everything wrong with it.
No one is foolish enough to say it’s a bad deal, though only fools or people promised favors would call it “great,” people like VICA, the Valley business group.
In proof of its weakened position, the IBEW was offering to defer the 2 percent raise due in October for four years and to take no raises in the intervening years. The union agreed to screw future employees with a retirement and pension package and wage structures that are more in line with what other city workers get — a deal that leaves literally hundreds of other issues unresolved.
It’s a “start,” everyone who lives off the system agreed, but it’s too late to start all over again.
It has taken decades to create these problems and the clock is ticking. We fix it now or at the least come a lot closer to what is desperately needs or the city where everyone lives on the edge is hanging over the precipice.
Eric Garcetti knows that. He has shaken up the lapdog DWP Commission by replacing four members who represented such special interests such as USC and the environmental green-washers with people who hopefully have a broader sense of public service than serving than people who sign their handsome paychecks.
He knows this is far from the deal the city needs just as Villaraigosa did back in 2005 when SEIU leader Julie Butcher publicly declared:
“During 2004 contract negotiations, city management told [us] there was no money in the budget for raises, and [we] took them at their word . . .
“What should I say to a mechanic who fixes police cars for a living when he makes 20 percent less than a mechanic who works across the street?” I don’t see how I can ever take the city at its word again.”
She didn’t, and is now managing SEIU affairs in Riverside County where a union official who understands our futures are all bound together cannot interfere with the feeding frenzy going on in LA.
Understand her union like others representing civilian workers had given up raises in the because of the continuing fiscal crisis while DWP workers got a 5 percent increase.
“They make choices,,” the bully D’Arcy declared in response back then. “If I brought my members zero, I would be hanging from that rafter over there.”
One can only hope there are rafters high enough and a rope short enough.
Then-Controller Laura Chick captured the popular sentiment at the time, saying: “Too often, the city of Los Angeles has been stuck in a time warp, making decisions in the same way over and over again, without stepping back and asking is this the best way to do this.”
Clearly, the outrageous DWP wage premium went back a long way.
Just since fiscal 1999, DWP workers had gotten 30 percent in salary hikes and civilian workers 25 percent – while the regional consumer price index had risen about 19 percent. It is now documented that the DWP wage premium is 30 and 40 percent higher than workers doing the same job for the city in other departments and close to that for many categories of workers doing the same jobs for other utilities in the region
On Monday night, three days after Wesson’s propaganda event in support of this puny deal, just 75 or so Neighborhood Council activists bothered to show up at City Hall to meet with the bureaucratic architects of the deal at City Hall, Chief Legislative Analyst Gerry Miller and DWP CEO Ron Nichols.
The activists were not in a fighting mood, just asking questions and grumbling.
Despite being on duty as a Naval intelligence officer, Garcetti showed up for a cameo appearance, offered mild words of encouragement and unveiled a petition drive he started called Fix DWP.
“I don’t want to say, two years from now, that we rushed through this,” Garcetti said, suggesting Miller’s analysis that totally obscured key issues was “incomplete.”
“It did not include the importance of the issues that I laid out on work rules, it didn’t do the nuances on the fourth-year raise.”
Dakota Smith at the Daily News talked to Jeff Bruce of the Hollywood United Neighborhood Council who likened the event to showing off an “open sewer.”
“The problem is that it is still an open sewer,” Bruce said.
Exactly. The stench fills the nostrils of every sentient person in the city.
Garcetti for all his ambition to attain higher officer should understand that, should understand that this is his make or break crisis: Four years from now he will be judged on whether he did the right thing now or his political ambitions will be crushed as certainly as Villaraigosa’s were when he could barely avoid a runoff in 2009 against Walter Moore and Zuma Dogg.
D’Arcy is probably correct that LA has neither the stomach nor the attention span to see this through.
There is a golden moment here for Garcetti. Will he will catch it?
It would be tragic for the future of the city if he stops short of getting real change and then faces an alienated and empowered IBEW and its supporters.
He really has one shot, one chance to get it right. He needs to find the guts and to understand that real reform requires confronting the real problem headon and exciting the public to back him.
Dick Riordan failed because he loved the people but didn’t respect them; Hahn failed because it took too much work and imagination to transcend the shadow of his father Kenny Hahn’s outdated “pothole politics,” and Villaraigosa failed because fine wine and fine women meant more to him than fulfilling the hopes and dreams of those who believed and trusted him.
Who Eric Garcetti is will soon be clear.
But he needs to know that if he gives in here, nothing he does for the next four or eight years or for the rest of his life will be anything but ego-satisfying without consequence to the values he says he holds sacred.
But he if finds the strength and courage to win this fight, he gets to tackle the next big issue and the one after that and to build momentum with a growing army of ordinary people from all walks of life and backgrounds who only want a better life for the themselves and their families and neighbors and the city as a whole.
With a chance of greatness, with the opportunity to help LA finally find its soul that brings everyone together, it is unthinkable that Eric Garcetti would make the wrong choice — unthinkable but not impossible.