Faced with the threat of a massive strike, a divided Los Angeles City Council on Tuesday approved a controversial contract that raises the salaries of most Department of Water and Power workers by at least 17.9% over five years, and as much as 31% if inflation spikes that high.
The council’s 10-3 vote was greeted with a boisterous roar of approval from the more than 200 DWP workers who packed the council chambers.
Many of the workers wore T-shirts that read “Will Strike If Provoked,” and a union leader confirmed a strike vote had been planned for Monday if the council had not approved the contract, which begins Oct. 1.
“They know we are serious. We have a union policy: no contract, no work,” said Brian D’Arcy, business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, which represents 7,900 of the DWP’s 8,200 workers.
In comments to the council before the vote, D’Arcy reminded officials that the last work stoppage, in 1993, lasted nine days.
The new contract provides a minimum annually guaranteed cost-of-living increase of 3.25% but allows salaries to grow by up to 6% each year if inflation is that high. For the first year, beginning Oct. 1, the raise will be 3.8%, the rate of inflation as measured last month by the federal government. The rate is slightly higher than officials expected, in large part because of the sharp rise in fuel costs.
Leaders of other unions have criticized the city for giving much higher raises to the DWP than to other city workers.
While some council members brought up the same issue, the majority said Tuesday that the contract was reasonable because it provided a hedge against inflation for workers who often toil in hazardous conditions to keep the electricity and water flowing.
“It’s a fair contract,” said Councilman Tony Cardenas. “I think it’s fair to the ratepayers and the workers.”
DWP electric rates are lower than the rates charged by Southern California Edison and other utilities, noted Councilman Eric Garcetti.
“A business that would see its rates be 25% less than its competitors’ would certainly give a reasonable raise to its employees as a reward for good work done,” Garcetti said.
Councilman Bill Rosendahl supported the raises after DWP General Manager Ron Deaton said they represent only half a percentage point of the 3.8% water rate increase proposed for next year.
And Council President Alex Padilla, who is running for state Senate, noted that the council had previously approved the general framework of the city’s bargaining position and that the tentative contract had been ratified by the DWP employees. Although the city attorney had ruled that the council could renegotiate the pact, Padilla said, “To go backward I don’t think is in keeping with the spirit of good-faith bargaining.”
The contract was opposed by Councilmen Greig Smith, Bernard Parks and Dennis Zine, who said the deal was unfair to city employee unions that received smaller raises. Most city workers have contracts that provide raises of 6.25% over three years, in comparison with the minimum 10.7% given DWP employees during that period.
Zine said he objected to the contract’s allowing raises of up to 6%, depending on inflation. “The concern I have is that no other union in the city receives that, not the police officers, not the firefighters, not the librarians, not the sanitation workers.”
Deaton and City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka said they doubted DWP workers would receive 6% raises during any year of the contract.
Smith noted that one city union, representing 10,000 blue-collar workers, accepted no raise last year after the council said the city was in dire financial straits.
“And yet we stand here today and say we have to give this union more because that union boss said, ‘I’m going to strike if you don’t give me what we want,’ ” Smith said.
Council members have been on edge since worker error at a DWP power facility sparked a blackout last week that left half the city without power, even though agency officials said the outage had nothing to do with the tense labor situation.
Zine said the contract will lead other unions to demand the same raises, even though the city general fund is not as flush as the semi-independent DWP treasury.
“What are you going to tell the other union representatives when they come before you and say they want the same 6% cap?” Zine said. “How do we tell the other folks, including the police and fire and paramedics, they can’t have that?”
Smith also said it’s not fair that many DWP jobs already pay much more than similar jobs in other city departments. In one case, a senior automobile dispatcher at DWP receives $80,200, or 61% more than the same class of worker at other city departments. A starting structural engineering associate makes $71,700, or 6% more than the same worker in other city departments.
After the vote, D’Arcy dismissed Smith as a “sensationalist,” noting that the dispatcher job with the biggest disparity involves only one DWP employee. The union leader said Parks, the former police chief, has a police pension without a cap on inflation-based increases.
The contract would cost the DWP about $70 million over five years if the raises are at the minimum and about $135 million if the raises are in the 6% range, Deaton said.
Monica Harmon, a community activist, was the only member of the public to testify Tuesday against the contract’s 6% cap. “How do you justify this when our LAPD officers received only a 4% raise?” she asked.
But a group of DWP workers urged the council to finalize the contract it had previously offered, saying, “A deal is a deal.”
The council’s action is final, and it does not go to Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who said he supports the council’s vote.
“Once the contract was presented to membership, anything short of approval would have been unjust,” the mayor said.
However, he joined City Controller Laura Chick in announcing that they would initiate a comprehensive review and reform of the city’s labor negotiation policies. A private accountant will see if the city can produce a “more transparent labor negotiating process” and will examine the costs of labor agreements.
Garcetti noted that the contract should be put in the context of the high cost of living in Los Angeles, where he said a family has to make $120,000 a year just to buy an average home. To those who are concerned about the city’s losing its middle class, Garcetti said, “I’ll tell you where the middle class is. It’s right in front of us today.”