Despite tough talk by City Hall in years past, DWP workers poised to get generous new contract

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power’s most powerful union went into contract negotiations late last year convinced its workers deserved more money.

For three years, the union’s 9,000 members had gone without raises, even as other city workers won pay increases.

The negotiations were done behind closed doors. Bargaining instructions were handed down by four council members as well as Mayor Eric Garcetti, who took office in 2013 vowing to bring down costs at the DWP and look out for ratepayers.

The talks ended with a deal that many consider highly favorable to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, with workers getting six raises over five years.

The union also will continue to contribute nothing toward healthcare costs from their paychecks, a perk some other city workers don’t get.

City officials are now fast-tracking the agreement for City Council approval Wednesday, skipping the traditional committee meeting at which the public can voice support or opposition about the deal before it is heard in council chambers.

The process is shaping up to be another example of the powerful sway labor unions hold at Los Angeles City Hall. Although some activists are expressing concerns about the deal, there appears to be little opposition on the City Council. Labor has long been a key player in local politics and a major fundraiser for candidates.

While the mayor won political points for promising DWP reform in 2013, this time around the union appears to have made up for “lost ground” with a generous package, said Chris Tilly, a labor economist with the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs.

“This is a different attitude and outcome than we saw before,” Tilly said. “This is a return to more of the norm in terms of City Hall and unions.”

City Councilman Paul Koretz, who serves on the committee that negotiated the deal, said he opted not to hold a committee hearing on the contract because he felt anyone who wanted to speak about the deal could do so at Wednesday’s council meeting.

A spokeswoman for City Council President Herb Wesson said that the council wants to pass the IBEW contract before the fiscal year starts July 1, even though the contract doesn’t go into effect until October.

Jay Handal, co-chairman of Neighborhood Council Budget Advocates, said the city was showing a “lack of transparency” in pushing through the deal so quickly.

“The only reason to rush is to avoid criticism,” Handal said. “[This is] a slap in the face to every ratepayer.”

This year’s contract vote is a much different process than 2013, when Garcetti blocked a proposed DWP contract to demand that community activists and others have time to review it and offer comment.

The mayor ran as someone who could be counted on to hold the utility, and its biggest union, accountable. During the election, IBEW Local 18 and its affiliates spent $2 million to support his opponent, then-City Controller Wendy Greuel.

After taking office, Garcetti challenged the proposed DWP contract, speaking out at a meeting for neighborhood leaders and supporting an online petition titled "Fix DWP!"

The mayor was on vacation last week when his appointees on the DWP board approved the contract. Later in the week, he attended a national event for mayors in Miami.

Mayor spokesman Alex Comisar said Garcetti’s busy schedule couldn't accommodate an interview Monday on the DWP agreement.

Comisar said that Garcetti is “committed to reforming LADWP, and this contract is a step toward improving our utility’s service to Angelenos.”

He added that the mayor believes “public input is an important part of this process, and he is confident that the City Council will give the public a fair opportunity to provide their feedback on this contract.”

City officials and DWP representatives argue that the raises are needed as unemployment falls and the job market grow more competitive.

The salary agreement would provide raises of least 13.2% and as much as 22.3% by October 2021, depending on inflation. It would also deliver a 4% boost over two years to the base pay of hundreds of DWP electrical distribution mechanics, also known as linemen.

Those increases are needed because employees are quitting to join better-paying utilities, DWP officials said.

Mayoral aides point to concessions in the contract that end the utility’s practice of sending $4 million annually to two controversial training institutes closely affiliated with the union.

The other City Council members who serve on the Executive Employee Relations Committee alongside Garcetti, Councilmen Mitch Englander and Paul Krekorian, either declined to comment on the contract or didn’t respond to a request for an interview Monday.

A representative for IBEW Local 18 also declined to comment.

City Controller Ron Galperin praised the decision to no longer fund the training institutes but also said he “would have negotiated a different contract.”

The controller questioned the across-the-board raises for the union’s 9,000 workers. He said that the raises should be “well-tailored” to both attract and retain workers.

“We need to better use available data to determine compensation levels for different categories of employees in as objective a manner as possible,” Galperin said.

dakota.smith@latimes.com

Twitter: @dakotacdsmith

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