Eight Los Angeles public employee unions have taken their fight with Mayor Eric Garcetti into a new arena by seeking to curtail his power to select who can serve on a panel that decides the city’s biggest labor disputes.
Unions representing police officers, firefighters and most other city employees have filed a legal challenge demanding the removal of two people named by the mayor to the city’s Employee Relations Board. In a filing with the panel, those groups said Garcetti improperly ended a long-standing practice of letting city unions screen candidates for the five-member board, which is little known but wields tremendous influence on employee issues.
The fight offers the latest evidence of the chill between labor unions and the mayor as he attempts to negotiate salary agreements for about 30,000 workers. Garcetti and the City Council have attempted in recent years to cut back on employee costs and bring the budget into balance by 2018. Unions, in turn, have filed complaints with the board in hopes of overturning some of those efforts.
At stake in the latest dispute are future decisions regarding workers’ salaries, pensions and working conditions, all of which can affect the city’s bottom line and its ability to deliver services efficiently.
Garcetti moved last year to select his own appointees to the board without drawing from a pool of candidates submitted jointly by city unions and Los Angeles’ top budget official, City Administrative Officer Miguel Santana. That ended a 42-year tradition at City Hall and drew a fierce reaction from employee groups, who regularly turn to the Employee Relations Board to undo decisions they oppose and view as illegal.
The Coalition of L.A. City Unions convinced the board last month to strike down a reduction in pension benefits for new hires that was expected to save up to $3.9 billion over 30 years. The city plans to appeal that decision. The coalition is also challenging the city’s new contract with employees of the Department of Water and Power, even though its members do not work at the DWP. Coalition leaders have said the DWP contract, which avoids giving any raises until 2016, would make it harder for other city workers to get jobs at the utility.
In the complaint against Garcetti, the coalition and other groups said the mayor was required under city law to negotiate any change to the selection process for the Employee Relations Board.
A special committee headed by Council President Herb Wesson began reviewing the union complaint Friday. But Coalition lawyers have been trying to block lawmakers from deciding the matter, saying that they have a conflict of interest. Council members who approved both of Garcetti’s appointees should not be allowed to “determine the validity and legality of their own prior actions,” union lawyer Anthony Segall said in a letter sent to Wesson this week.
The city’s lawyers contend there is no conflict. Meanwhile, Gary Toebben, president of the Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, said his group supports efforts by Garcetti to make the Employee Relations Board “more independent.”
“Forcing our elected leaders to choose from a pool of handpicked union advocates ensures that decisions made by the board will not be independent or represent the best interests of the city at large,” Toebben said. The board’s recent decision to overturn a reduction in pension benefits, he added, “is obvious proof of this fact.”
Even if council members side with Garcetti, the unions could still prevail. In Sacramento, labor leaders have succeeded in winning passage of a state bill restoring the power of unions to screen nominees to the Los Angeles employee board. That bill, which still requires Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, would impose a similar change in Los Angeles County government.
Assemblyman Reggie Jones-Sawyer (D-Los Angeles), who authored the bill, said unions approached him in February about reworking the appointment process. Going back to the previous system, he said, will ensure that the city’s board is impartial in its handling of employee-management disputes.
“If you do the mayor’s way of doing it, [the process] becomes political,” he said. “This is not supposed to be a political operation.”
The practice of letting unions weigh in on candidates for the Employee Relations Board dates to 1971, according to a report prepared for council members. A law passed that year called for the mayor to select people whose names appeared on a list jointly prepared by management and labor unions. That changed in 1999, when voters updated the City Charter and gave the mayor sole authority to appoint board members.
In the wake of that vote, council members rescinded the portion of the law that offered unions a role. But in 2000, Mayor Richard Riordan resurrected the practice, signing an executive order to ensure nominees to the Employee Relations Board would continue to be preselected by management and a committee of city labor unions.
“There was common union-management agreement on…a list of who should be appointed, and then the mayor appointed from that list,” said Lester Ostrov, an attorney for the firefighters’ union. “And it worked very well.”
Garcetti rescinded Riordan’s order in November and picked his first appointee to the board: Rosalinda Lugo, an administrator at the Los Angeles Unified School District. The council approved her nomination on a 10-1 vote, with Councilman Felipe Fuentes opposed.
Fuentes, who represents the northeast San Fernando Valley, said Friday he wants the union’s role in the appointment process to be restored. Garcetti spokesman Jeff Millman said voters decided 15 years ago to give L.A. mayor’s the power to appoint commission members. “Mayor Garcetti will continue to consult with interested parties as he fulfills his responsibility to appoint commissioners,” Millman said in a statement.
Normally, the Employee Relations Board would have been assigned to review the challenge against Garcetti. But because the union’s complaint focuses on how board members get their posts, City Atty. Mike Feuer determined that the panel would face a conflict of interest if it took the matter up. Unions now say that the committee faces its own conflict. Wesson’s committee will have to decide in coming weeks whether it too faces a conflict.
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