Feeling the heat from 9,000 non-union Los Angeles County employees--some of them dressed in black and engaging in a vocal protest--the Board of Supervisors on Tuesday beat a hasty retreat from a proposed 5% pay cut for county workers and was forced to look elsewhere for solutions to its worst-ever fiscal crisis.
In a stunning reversal only five days after voting to adopt the pay reduction in principle, the supervisors agreed to link any pay cut for non-union employees to a similar reduction for the county's 77,000 unionized workers.
The linkage is a poison pill that effectively kills the pay cut for now, because any reduction in the salary of unionized workers must be negotiated at the bargaining table. And the leader of the Service Employees International Union, Local 660, which represents about half of all county employees, has flatly refused to agree to any rollback in pay.
Gilbert Cedillo, general manager of SEIU 660, said the union's leadership will not even consider pay cuts until the Board of Supervisors has exhausted all other options. And Cedillo said the board has plenty of alternatives, including borrowing $100 million from the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, who led the effort to cut the salaries of non-union employees last week and was immediately threatened with becoming a one-term supervisor by a group of angry county prosecutors, moved to suspend the 5% pay cut and substitute $10.7 million in cuts from budgets for supplies and services in most county departments. His board colleagues, also looking for political cover, readily agreed.
Board Chairwoman Gloria Molina was in Washington and did not participate.
"I don't think anybody on this board, and I will speak for myself especially, had any intent of having non-represented employees treated in one way while other employees are treated another," Yaroslavsky said.
In pressing for the 5% pay reduction last Thursday, Yaroslavsky railed at his fellow supervisors for engaging in "business as usual" by raiding the county's meager budget reserve and being unwilling to make real and difficult cuts in county government. "It's a bitter pill for a lot of people to swallow, but we're in a crisis," Yaroslavsky said last week.
But after hearing protests from nearly all ranks of unrepresented employees, from secretaries to public defenders and prosecutors to department heads, the supervisors returned from a lengthy closed-door session with their labor negotiator Tuesday and promptly relented--by tying together pay cuts for both non-union and union employees.
Indeed, no sooner had Tuesday's meeting started than Supervisor Deane Dana, the lone dissenter on the pay cut last week, urged his colleagues to abandon their previous position.
"We need to condition any pay cuts for non-represented employees on acceptance of equivalent pay cuts by union employees," Dana said. "Since this will probably not happen, we need to develop a plan for cutbacks that will treat all equally."
Dana noted that already 3,200 union workers have negotiated new labor agreements that provide for no pay raises this year and forbid the county from cutting their salaries without reopening their contracts.
To proceed with pay cuts that "unfairly single out non-union workers," Dana said, would drive them to unionize.
In urgent tones, Dist. Atty. Gil Garcetti told the supervisors that they must withdraw the pay cut proposal, which incensed some deputy district attorneys in his office. "It's a horrible message to send to the very talented, committed prosecutors who we are trying to keep in the office and who want to stay there," he said.
"Everyone understands that at some point it may be necessary to take a hit, but we want it done in a fair way," Garcetti told reporters later. "If all the unions, all elected officials, everyone takes a pay cut, OK. But to single out all the unrepresented people, including every prosecutor, every public defender, plus the support staff is simply unfair."
His remarks came after a parade of county employees joined in protesting the pay cut proposal.
Lola Jaramillo told the supervisors that most of the secretaries in the county Department of Children and Family Services are single parents who simply cannot afford a 5% pay cut.
"We depend on every cent that we earn," Jaramillo said. "To use us as cost savings for the budget is hitting below the belt. We have obligations that are heavy for our small backs. We have families to support."
Through phone calls, letters, faxes and e-mail, non-union county employees made themselves heard in the corridors of power. Secretaries in the supervisors' offices at the county Hall of Administration joined the protest Tuesday, wearing black clothing and black ribbons.
Although they had planned to unite in a moment of silence at 2 p.m., that was called off after a secretary in Dana's office said they had been told by Dana that the pay cut would be rescinded.
A group of senior departmental managers, the Administrative Deputies Network, also bitterly objected, saying any pay cuts should be across the board, for union and non-union, managerial and support staff and the supervisors themselves.
It is not the first time the supervisors have backed away from a pay cut in the face of protests. In 1993, they averted a potentially crippling general strike by union workers who refused to accept a pay decrease even though the county said it was desperately needed to balance the budget.
The supervisors had sought an 8.25% pay decrease from union workers to shave about $215 million from the budget.
Yaroslavsky, speaking to reporters, called his short-lived proposal "an interesting exercise" and said it had value. "Everyone felt the sting of the county's fiscal crisis in a way it had not been felt before," he said.
He predicted that before this fiscal year is over next June 30, the county may face layoffs outside of its troubled health system and employees may be forced to accept work furloughs without pay.
He noted the supervisors still face tough choices about how to deal with a series of budget problems that exceed $100 million. "This is not a retreat from the 5%," Yaroslavsky said. "It is just not."
Times staff writer Josh Meyer contributed to this story.