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10,000 Strike Against DWP; Judge Orders Most Back : Labor: Minimal disruption is reported on first day of walkout. Unions, management talk after long standoff.

TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A walkout by 10,000 Los Angeles Department of Water and Power employees Wednesday had only a minimal effect on service, but city officials quickly secured a court order requiring most striking workers to return to their jobs, citing the potential for widespread power outages and water shortages.

In ordering members of Local 18 of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers to return to their jobs, Superior Court Judge Robert H. O’Brien said he will reconsider the temporary restraining order on Sept. 10. At that time, the city will have to prove its contention that the strike by 90% of the DWP’s work force presents a “substantial and imminent threat to health and safety,” he said.

The 2,500 members of the Engineers and Architects Assn. who were also on the picket lines Wednesday are not affected by the judge’s ruling and planned to continue their walkout.

The city is required to serve the restraining order on the leaders and members of the electrical workers union, a prospect that could be difficult amid the tense standoff. Union members refused to say late Wednesday whether they would comply with the order.

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The court intervention came after the union employees of the nation’s largest municipal utility walked off their jobs at dawn Wednesday, leaving the DWP unable to keep up with some breakdowns and raising the specter of widespread power outages and water shortages if the strike continues.

A fraction of the DWP’s customers, about 1,000 homes on the Westside and in the San Fernando Valley, were without power much of the day because the relatively few administrators and workers on the job had to struggle to keep the entire system operating and had little time for repairs. Some traffic signals were shut down, tying up residential traffic in a few areas.

The DWP has more than 1 million power customers and 700,000 water customers.

Officials announced that water across the city may have the taste and smell of chlorine today because more of the chemical had to be added to the system as a safety measure. They said the water is still safe for consumption.

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Arguing that residents could be in danger if the strike continues, the city appealed to employees to cross picket lines and--five hours after the strike began at 6 a.m.--went to court seeking the temporary restraining order.

“We have a moral and legal obligation to serve the public,” said Joseph Hegenbart, the DWP’s assistant chief engineer for water. “We feel that some of the employees that have gone out on strike are essential to the public safety and health.”

The strike is the first to break out as city and county officials brace for what could be their worst labor turmoil ever.

County workers have threatened their own strike. The county’s largest labor union, representing 40,000 workers, half the county’s union work force, has authorized a strike if no agreement is reached by the end of the month. Meanwhile, all of the city’s 40,000 union employees--including police, firefighters and sanitation workers--have worked without contracts or a pay raise for more than a year.

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The city’s aging water and power system is continually undergoing repairs, and the biggest impact of the strike has been the virtual elimination of the roving repair crews. Normally, 1,000 employees perform repairs and maintenance on the power system. On Wednesday, there were about 50. Water system maintenance employees dropped from about 600 to 60.

“It takes only a moment in time for hundreds of people to lose their power or for water service to be interrupted,” said DWP spokesman Michael Moore.

DWP officials said the system was holding Wednesday, thanks to a year’s worth of special strike training for 350 administrators, along with about 550 union workers who officials said had crossed picket lines.

The DWP has been through walkouts in 1974 and 1980, both of which ended within five days.

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After huddling for several hours in closed session to discuss the city’s bargaining position, the City Council recessed but made it known it could legally reconvene at any time.

The city and the unions representing the DWP workers met at the negotiating table at an undisclosed hotel Wednesday evening for the first time in weeks in an effort to nail down an agreement. A state mediator was called in to assist in the revived talks.

Union and management officials declared a news blackout on anything related to the negotiations, a sharp contrast to the day before when Councilman Joel Wachs disclosed the city’s negotiating position to the media.

Behind closed doors on Tuesday, the council voted 9 to 5 in favor of a 9% pay increase over four years, said Wachs, who vehemently opposes giving DWP workers a raise. The council’s offer calls for no pay raise for the 1992-93 fiscal year, 2% this year, 3% next year and 4% the following year.

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When told of the offer by a reporter, a union official angrily rejected it and accused the city of negotiating through the news media.

Mayor Richard Riordan said Wednesday he is staying out of the negotiations--a day after he was criticized for making an unauthorized offer to the union. Management’s position is supposed to come from the City Executive Employee Relations Committee, with consent from the council.

At a news conference outside the Los Angeles Athletic Club on Wednesday, Riordan dispensed with his tough private stance, praising the union leadership and saying he hoped the matter will be resolved soon.

Throughout the first day of the strike, picketers representing 90% of the DWP work force gathered outside the agency’s Downtown headquarters as well as at maintenance yards, power plants and distribution centers in the area.

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Those who crossed the picket lines stared straight ahead as taunting strikers--some carrying signs saying “Ask the Politicians WHY"--converged on their cars.

Although salaries at the quasi-independent DWP come from utility rates, not taxes, city officials maintain that granting DWP employees a pay increase would influence settlements with other city workers. That would devastate an already dismal city budget picture, city officials say, at a time when thousands more police officers are needed on the streets.

Union officials contend that the DWP is so healthy financially that it transfers a portion of its revenue to the city’s general fund every year. They stress the DWP’s financial independence and say their wages should not suffer because of the city’s gloomy budget picture.

Anticipating a strike in recent days, the DWP has warned residents on life-support and major industries to prepare for a loss of power.

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As temperatures soared into the 90s on Wednesday, 1,000 customers in the San Fernando Valley and on the Westside lost power because of three circuit outages that the DWP said it was unable to repair immediately. Four water main leaks were fixed, and there were no reports of water problems.

In court papers, the city contended that the strike was purposely called at a hot, humid time of year, “to coincide with the annual peak demand for power.”

Union leaders said they were forced onto the street by city officials unwilling to negotiate in good faith. The union is seeking a 3.25% pay increase, the same offered to private utilities in the western states.

“I didn’t want this to happen, but we didn’t have a choice,” said Gerold Mouzone, a DWP employee from Granada Hills. “Each day I’m out here I’m losing money. I can’t go to my mortgage company and say, ‘I’m on strike.’ If it goes on for more than a few days, it’s going to devastate me.”

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In an attempt to buttress its case, the DWP released employment data showing that DWP employees receive wages similar to those earned by Southern California Edison workers. A maintenance machinist earns $21.91 a hour at Edison and $23.75 at the DWP, according to the data. A control operator earns $24.31 at Edison and $23.75 at DWP. Meter readers earn $15.65 at Edison and $16.59 at DWP.

At issue is the 3.25% pay increase that Edison and other private utilities have agreed to for next year. The DWP wants the same increase, but the city is saying it cannot afford that rate.

There were sporadic reports of clashes at the picket lines, authorities said. A man crossing one line was punched in the face. Numerous cars reportedly were vandalized as they entered a facility. Nails were placed in the driveway leading to one DWP parking lot.

The strike extends beyond the city boundaries to DWP regional facilities throughout California. A small group of employees picketed at a DWP plant in Nevada.

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Times staff writers Penelope McMillan, Jocelyn Stewart and Elaine Tassy contributed to this story.


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