L.A. Now

Union coalition joins SEIU local in healthcare fight with L.A. County

The fight between labor and Los Angeles County government intensified Friday, when a coalition of unions representing 90,000 workers banded together to fight county efforts to reduce retirement healthcare benefits for future employees.

Until now, the disagreement had been limited to one union that represents county workers, SEIU 721, which has been working without a contract for a month. On Friday, several other unions that have already signed contracts with a 6% raise announced that they would be joining the Service Employees International Union local in its fight over healthcare costs.

In a letter to the county's chief executive, the unions compared the county's bargaining tactics to those used by Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives during the recent government shutdown.

"As we know from that failed effort, hostage-taking is not a productive means to an end that requires consensus," the letter said.

At a news conference, leaders of several unions said that rising health insurance premiums mean that workers will, in effect, see their pay cut despite the raise.

"It doesn't help to threaten us and threaten all county workers with a pay cut," Blaine Meek, chairman of the Coalition of County Unions, said while flanked by labor leaders representing deputy sheriffs, firefighters and other public employees. "That is not constructive. It's destructive, and that's why we're here and we're willing to fight for affordable healthcare. They put us in the corner."

County officials said this week that they would cover nearly all the employees' increased premium costs, which are set to go up Jan. 1, if labor agrees to discuss reducing retirement healthcare benefits for future employees. Current employees with 25 or more years of service see 100% of their retirement healthcare costs covered. In 2014, the county is expected to spend $487.8 million on retiree healthcare.

Earlier this week, the coalition offered to work with a neutral facilitator to discuss modifying future employees' retirement healthcare benefits and the SEIU local signed on Friday. One labor official who spoke on condition of anonymity said the county has offered only one option — capping the dollar amount spent on retirement health coverage for future employees, which this person said was unacceptable given spiraling healthcare costs.

David Sommers, the county's spokesman, said that government leaders would be willing to work with a facilitator, and that the capped-dollar proposal was only one of several potential solutions.

All this comes days after the SEIU local walked away from the bargaining table, and as its 55,000 members are voting on whether to authorize a strike. Votes are expected to be tallied next weekend.

"Make no mistake about it, this is a very serious action," said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU 721.

"We would much rather … meet and discuss and resolve these issues," Schoonover said.

Also on Friday, members of his union and advocates staged a brief sit-in outside the office of Los Angeles County Chief Executive William T Fujioka, calling on the county to scrutinize the property tax assessments of a major downtown property owner.

The activists from the ReFund LA Coalition said commercial property giant Brookfield Office Properties structured its recent acquisition of four downtown skyscrapers to take advantage of a Proposition 13 loophole that allows a new owner to avoid having the properties reassessed at fair market value and probably triggering a higher tax bill. The coalition has recently targeted prominent Los Angeles property owners as part of a campaign to reform the property tax law.

They say the company could avoid paying more than $10 million in property taxes a year — much of which would go to county coffers — by taking less than a 50% stake in a new entity that will take title to the properties and others now held by Brookfield.

About 100 activists rallied at Brookfield's Bank of America Plaza on South Hope Street and then marched to the Hall of Administration, where they sat outside Fujioka's office.

The protesters chanted "Let's talk to Bill! Where is Bill?" Initially, members of his staff said he was not there, but after the protesters continued chanting, the chief executive emerged and took a copy of a letter stating their demands.

The activists called on the county to scrutinize Brookfield's properties — along with those of other major commercial property owners — and reassess the newly purchased properties.

Fujioka told the activists that county officials agree with "what you are trying to achieve."

"I am going to go talk to the assessor's staff to find out about that," he said. "You gotta understand, there are hundreds of properties that are sold all the time."

Brookfield spokeswoman Melissa Coley said the company never intended to skirt reassessment.

"Brookfield anticipates that all the properties … will undergo a Proposition 13 valuation; there was no thought to the contrary throughout the time in which this transaction was being contemplated," she said in an email. She said the company will file documents with the state Board of Equalization that will trigger a reassessment.

SEIU Local 721 has made similar requests as part of the contract talks but has accused the county of ignoring them. County officials have said that the Proposition 13 matter did not have a place at the bargaining table.

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