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L.A. workers protest prolonged labor talks

L.A. workers protest wage freezes and cuts in pension and healthcare benefits as labor talks continue

Los Angeles city workers staged a series of demonstrations Tuesday to protest proposed wage freezes and reductions in pension and healthcare benefits, underscoring mounting tensions in labor talks that have dragged on for close to a year.

A dawn rally outside a sanitation yard in Boyle Heights kicked off gatherings at various job sites intended to draw attention to stallednegotiationsbetween the city and unions representing roughly 20,000 municipal workers. The workers' previous contract expired in June.

Mayor Eric Garcetti and the city's negotiating team are asking the Coalition of LA City Unions — which represents more than half the city's civilian workforce — to agree to forego raises for three years, accept reduced retirement benefits and pay 10% of their healthcare premiums. Many employees pay no medical insurance premiums.

Garcetti and other city officials argue that Los Angeles needs such labor concessions to balance its books. Workers and union leaders are pushing back, saying that the city's position would weaken public services. Some also say Garcetti has breached the traditional confidentiality of contract negotiations in recent interviews with The Times.

Gilda Valdez, chief of staff for Service Employees International Union, Local 721, declined to comment Tuesday about the specific sticking points in talks. "I'm going to do something that the mayor didn't do," said Valdez, whose union represents roughly 10,000 of the coalition's members. "I'm going to respect the process."

Valdez said Garcetti's effort to limit personnel costs is at odds with his much-promoted back to basics agenda of restoring and improving basic city services squeezed during the economic downturn. "We are tired of this," Valdez said. "We want to be part of [Garcetti's] back to basics agenda. But he's got to do his part."

In 2007, the coalition secured a roughly 25% pay raise spread over seven years.

Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman said in an email that the city is "not negotiating in the press." But he did point to other recent labor contracts that the administration says reined in personnel costs. They include an agreement with Department of Water and Power workers that included no raises and one with Fire Department employees that gave a 2% raise.

"We have made progress with the coalition and are continuing to talk with them to achieve a fair agreement that the city can afford," Millman said.

The dispute between the city and coalition has so far been genteel by the standards of some labor standoffs in cities such as Chicago or New York. On Tuesday, groups of workers and activists joined morning rallies while some city employees took 10-minute breaks from work to march or chant. Union leaders said city services were not disrupted.

At the sanitation yard rally, a few dozen garbage truck drivers gathered for a 6:30 a.m. news conference organized by Fix LA, an alliance of unions, clergy and community groups. Afterward, the workers lined up for breakfast burritos served by union staff members, but trash pickup wasn't delayed.

Eastside Councilman Jose Huizar, who is running for reelection, attended the rally, but declined to say if he supports the city's bargaining stance on pay raises, pensions and healthcare premiums.

"I really can't comment on the negotiations," Huizar said. "I am here today simply to support the overall message that we need to reinvest in basic services."

Truck driver Marshall Turner, 58, said he was worried about the lack of progress in contract negotiations. Turner has worked for the city for nearly three decades. He said that after agreeing to furloughs and increased contributions to retirement costs during the recession, he and his co-workers expected better treatment as the economy recovers.

"We did everything [the city] asked," he said. "Now the economy is getting better and they're asking us to do more and more."

peter.jamison@latimes.com

soumya.karlamangla@latimes.com

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