Labor has helped L.A., but tweaks are still needed

Surrounded by city workers in September, SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover, center, addresses the Los Angeles City Council to protest cuts to future city workers' retirement and health benefits.
(Anne Cusack, Los Angeles Times)

I think it’s fair to say that the men sitting across the table from me Monday afternoon were not terribly happy with my recent work.

Bob Schoonover, president of Service Employees International Union, Local 721, and Art Sweatman, a shop steward and tree trimmer for the city of Los Angeles, found much to dislike in my April 23 column. That’s the one in which I said public employee unions need to make a few more concessions.


“We did a whole bunch, and we saved the city a whole bunch of money,” said Schoonover, who speaks like a boxer working the bag, one jab after another.

Sweatman said I had unfairly hammered organized labor, and while I disagree, what really hurt was his contention that I went too easy on public officials.

“I live in Long Beach, and somehow with fewer citizens and less revenue, my trees are trimmed, the sidewalks are fixed, and the streets are paved,” said Sweatman. “I don’t understand how Los Angeles, with all the revenue it has, can’t provide the same level of services.”

Well, let me say, first of all, that Schoonover and Sweatman both made some solid arguments in my 90 minutes with them at SEIU headquarters. It’s true that Local 721 — which represents 10,000 L.A. city employees, including custodians, truck operators, mechanics, parking attendants, traffic officers and others — has reluctantly agreed in the last few years to an early retirement plan that shrank the workforce. It also agreed to have a promised raise stretched out over seven years instead of five. And in a more significant concession, it signed off on an increase in the employee pension contribution from 6% of pay to 11%.

If Los Angeles has financial problems, they said, maybe it’s because city officials haven’t done their jobs very well. And maybe those same city officials are exaggerating the depths of the crisis to wring more givebacks out of city employees.

Sweatman argued that hundreds of millions of dollars could be saved if private contractors made concessions just as city employees did, and if the city did a better job of collecting debt from deadbeats. Schoonover said that although people seem to think the bulk of city employees retire fat and happy in their 50s, the average retirement age is 62 and fewer than 1% have pensions that match their final compensation. The average annual pension is around $40,000, and Schoonover added that city employees don’t get (or pay into) Social Security.

His union brothers and sisters are what’s left of the middle class, Schoonover said. And if their life raft is in better shape than the private sector’s, we ought to fix ours rather than punch a hole in theirs.

OK, can I respond now?

For starters, I said in last week’s column that I’m pro-labor, the son of a Teamster and former union member myself, and I’m not asking these guys to give back so much that they’re living under bridges and eating in soup kitchens.

All that’s needed, in my opinion, are a few tweaks. Not just from them, but from other city unions too, and from the crew that has the best deal of all — the lucky ducks at the Department of Water and Power.

For instance, Schoonover and Sweatman told me they’re each on a Kaiser healthcare plan.

And what do they pay in monthly premiums?

Nothing, they said.

Not a bad deal.

And in a city with 5,000 miles of ruptured sidewalk and 8,000 miles of bad road, taxpayers have good reason to suspect there’s a connection between shrinking services and growing employee and retiree costs.

“It’s a misstatement to say we pay nothing toward our healthcare,” said Schoonover, who argued that his members have co-pays and prescription costs, and that part of their pension contribution increase from 6% to 11% will go toward retiree healthcare costs.

OK, but they agreed to that increase as part of a deal to keep their spouses on medical coverage in retirement, which sounds to me like a deluxe version of that life raft Schoonover was talking about.

Last week, when Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa delivered his budget, he said the city is in reasonably good shape this year but will face huge deficits before long unless city employees begin to pay 10% of the cost of their healthcare premiums. As it is, 70% of all employees pay no premium. In addition, the mayor said city workers will have to forgo a 5.5% raise scheduled for January.

Any guess what Schoonover and Sweatman say to that?

“We have a legal and binding contract,” said Schoonover. “We have bent over backwards to help this city, and we will be back at the bargaining table in the middle of next year. We’ll talk to you then.”

In other words, they’re done renegotiating the current contract.

“At some point in time, people have to live up to the deal they agreed to,” Schoonover said of city officials.

All right, but it’s not like employees haven’t had any recent raises. The 5.5% due in January is part of a 25% bump for most employees since 2006.

By the way, SEIU’s mayoral candidate of choice is Wendy Greuel, the beneficiary of millions in donations from the public employee unions. But she and foe Eric Garcetti, without being specific, have said they’ll do what they have to do to balance the budget.

Forecasts are tricky, but if there’s a fiscal storm in our near future, SEIU may have to throw something overboard to keep the life raft afloat.