Union leader defends Villaraigosa in wake of pension vote

One day after Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa won a key vote to roll back pensions for newly hired city employees, the president of one of the state’s larger private sector unions defended the mayor, saying he is “not the enemy” of workers.

For weeks, Villaraigosa’s push to raise the retirement age and cut benefits for new civilian employees has drawn fire from Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 10,000 city employees. The group — along with five other employee unions — has threatened a lawsuit and repeatedly compared the mayor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican and national lightning rod for union ire over his efforts to take away public employee collective bargaining rights.

But Wednesday, Villaraigosa drew cheers from members of SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents 40,000 janitors, security guards and other low-wage workers. Those union members applauded Villaraigosa as he urged Latino voters to show up for the Nov. 6 election.

Mike Garcia, president of SEIU United Service Workers West, declined to discuss the City Hall pension controversy. But he showed no interest in fueling comparisons between Villaraigosa and Walker.

“Antonio is not the enemy. The 1% is the enemy,” said Garcia, making a reference to the catchphrase popularized by the nationwide Occupy movement, which has denounced Wall Street and banks in particular.


Garcia said his organization’s fight is different from the SEIU chapter at City Hall. His local represents low-wage workers trying to get health insurance, citizenship and “dignity and respect,” he said.

“Someday they might even dream of having a pension,” he added.

The comments came a day after SEIU members working for the city rallied against the pension reductions, wearing cheeseheads — popular with Wisconsin’s Green Bay Packers fans — in an effort to drive home their Walker-Villaraigosa comparison. SEIU Local 721 spokesman Ian Thompson said his group stands by its position that Villaraigosa and the Los Angeles City Council “are doing the work of the 1% by cutting the pensions of future city workers.”

“The mayor has a penchant for making deals with billionaires, but breaking deals with city workers. We don’t think that’s how the city should run,” Thompson said.

Villaraigosa, for his part, thanked the council — and President Herb Wesson in particular — for backing his plan, which is set for a final vote next month. He said he feels “very comfortable” with the pension changes, which are designed to save $30 million to $70 million over five years and increase the eligibility age for full retirement from 55 to 65.

“I care about the employees and want them to have a pension that will be solvent into the future,” the mayor said.

The plan does not apply to police officers, firefighters or employees at the Department of Water and Power.