Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa this week faces a test that few would have predicted for the former union organizer who now occupies the seat of government in one of America’s most historically anti-labor cities: Thousands of his own workers, members of the city’s Engineers and Architects Assn., are prepared to strike and are asking other employees to join them.
Their two-day strike, planned for Tuesday and Wednesday, threatens to disrupt services at the airport, in the Police Department and at the city’s sewage treatment plant -- and, if other union workers honor the picket lines, it could affect scores more.
Beyond that, the strike draws new attention to the increasingly dominant place of public employee unions in local politics and risks embarrassing the mayor as he is poised to preside over the first significant walkout of municipal employees in a quarter-century, a period in which Republican Richard Riordan enjoyed relative labor peace, disrupted only by a Department of Water and Power strike in 1993 (DWP workers are public employees but are not paid from the city’s general fund) and a walkout of 16 pilots at the Port of Los Angeles in 1997.
Democrat James K. Hahn, who served from 2001 to 2005, presided over even more placid labor times.
Already, the new threat has caused some disruption. The Police Commission met in emergency session Friday to consider the union’s protest permit requests. Villaraigosa rescheduled a lobbying trip to Sacramento in order to be back in town when his employees walk out. And the city attorney’s office is poised to ask a judge today to issue a restraining order that would require employees in essential jobs to report to work.
“Public safety and public service will be delivered,” City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel said.
As odd as it may seem for Los Angeles’ labor Democrat mayor to be facing off against his union allies, the conflict offers vivid evidence of the changed expectations for America’s progressive city leaders -- and the expected walkout could actually end up benefiting the mayor against whom it is directed.
There was a simpler time for liberal mayors of America’s big cities, a time when patronage trumped most other priorities. Tammany Hall supplied jobs to its legions of New York City supporters; the first Richard Daley staffed Chicago with loyal Democrats; breakthrough mayors such as Maynard Jackson in Atlanta and Tom Bradley in Los Angeles made their mark, in part, by opening their city workforces to African Americans.
Liberal mayors today, however, carry a larger agenda, one that encompasses education, environmental protection and public safety, among other things.
And that larger agenda is not cheap: Villaraigosa’s promised police buildup required an increase in city trash fees, and he has proposed acquisition of parkland, the planting of a million trees and the construction of new transportation and housing hubs.
His plan to assume partial control of city schools from the Los Angeles Unified School District, meanwhile, does not envision municipal spending, but it does require the expenditure of significant political capital as he muscles support in Sacramento from wavering legislators.
The result is little latitude in the city budget for across-the-board wage increases, and Villaraigosa thus is left, as are many of his liberal contemporaries in other big cities, with the need to strike a tough line on public employee salary hikes.
“A progressive agenda by its very nature requires us to move away from the status quo to embracing innovation and reform,” Villaraigosa said in an interview last week. Citing public safety, transportation, education and the environment as essential ingredients of that agenda, Villaraigosa added: “Our responsibility to taxpayers is to ensure that government is efficient.”
That’s difficult to do while also bestowing largesse on city employee unions. Salaries and benefits represent the bulk of city expenses, and salary increases can quickly swallow up the sliver of the budget that Villaraigosa and other mayors use for new programs.
In the case of the Engineers and Architects Assn., the union is seeking a contract with annual pay increases of 3.25% to 6% for its approximately 7,600 members. The city has countered with a deal that would give raises totaling 6.25% over three years. Even at the low end, the difference between the two contracts, notes City Administrative Officer Bill Fujioka, comes to between $16 million and $20 million, enough to hire nearly 200 police officers.
Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor and is a longtime friend of Villaraigosa, acknowledged that the mayor’s mandate extends beyond public employees. But she argued that the other items of Villaraigosa’s agenda should not overshadow his responsibilities to city workers.
“It should be part of his agenda to preserve middle-class jobs,” she said. “Public-sector jobs have been an important part of the middle class in this country.”
Nowhere is that more true than in Los Angeles, she added, as the city suffers from a widely segregated economy; its rich are wealthier than most, and its poor more locked in poverty. No big city in America has a smaller middle class as a percentage of its population, as one recent study has confirmed.
In that context, Durazo said, Los Angeles’ liberal mayor has a special responsibility to protect wages that he controls directly.
“I don’t think that it is impossible to give fair salary increases
If the conflict between progressive reforms and union wage hikes creates a point of contention in Villaraigosa’s coalition, however, the strike threat also offers a singular opportunity for the mayor.
From the opening moments of his administration, Villaraigosa has sought to position himself as a moderate -- as a Latino willing to stand up to immigration protesters, as a liberal determined to rein in city spending and as an ardent supporter of the city’s police. The dust-up with labor offers the chance for him to reinforce that message -- that he may have once been a union organizer, but now he is a mayor.
That opportunity is all the more ripe given the adversary this time. Public employee unions are a strong force at City Hall and a ubiquitous presence in the deliberations of the City Council. Given Villaraigosa’s own labor background, the strike offers the chance for him to show resolve in standing up to his base. Indeed, as he noted during a news conference Friday afternoon, Villaraigosa has never before crossed a picket line; this week, he intends to.
“The people of the city elected me to do a job,” he said.
Others will be watching that moment with interest.
“Is he going to exert leadership, or is he going to appear captive?” asked Allan Hoffenblum, a longtime Republican strategist. “The perception is that the public employees run the show.... Does he have the perseverance to really fight?”
That is precisely what troubles leaders of the Engineers and Architects. “He’s trying to establish bona fides as being a moderate politically,” Robert Aquino, executive director of the union, said of Villaraigosa in a May interview. “And he’s trying to do it at the heads of my membership.”
Expanding on his criticism of Villaraigosa last week, Aquino accused the mayor of being distracted by other concerns, namely his bid to gain some power over the Los Angeles Unified School District. “Maybe the mayor is so involved in taking on new duties at the LAUSD that he’s not handling these issues,” Aquino said.
Asked in last week’s interview about the irony of a mayor with his background facing the first municipal strike in a generation, Villaraigosa chuckled. “I know where this is going,” he mumbled as the question was being posed.
“It does” strike me as strange, he said. “But I feel very strongly that we’ve offered our employees a fair contract that allows for increases in wages and benefits.”
After a moment, he added: “We have to get our fiscal house in order.”
Times staff writer Joe Mathews contributed to this report.