Sometimes L.A. politics seem like patty-cake, but when Brian D’Arcy gets in the game, the game gets serious. He’s a third-generation union man, and the union he heads, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, is the DWP’s biggest and a huge player at City Hall. In some quarters, the IBEW’s DWP contracts — worth as much as six figures — are a symbol of overweening union power. The political action committee he co-chairs and the IBEW supports, Working Californians, cobbled together the largest amount spent on behalf of Wendy Greuel’s mayoral bid, about $4 million. The IBEW isn’t crying “uncle.” D’Arcy has zest for the fray and one gear: forward.
First things first: John Shallman, Wendy Greuel’s campaign consultant, has said your union’s support became “damaging to the campaign.”
That doesn’t surprise me — the guy who’s directly responsible for the tone-deaf campaign she ran. What else would he say? The hit on her was, somehow, she was the DWP candidate. [Voters] merged the employer and the union. It could have been deflected. They never did, and they ran a crappy campaign. The larger message is that some people will do anything to get elected — the same people [Garcetti’s camp] who wanted our endorsement all of a sudden turn it into a pejorative.
Why the antipathy toward public unions like yours?
If you sell the idea that if others are dragged down then somehow you are elevated — I find it offensive. Does it help somebody if my members make less? They are 22% of the [DWP] budget. DWP union workers could take zero [pay] and it isn’t going to fix the city budget. The right-wing apparatchik has decided workers are the enemy, and we represent them.
My people are of all ethnic and economic strata. They coach Little League. The Electrical Workers Minority Caucus — they rebuilt a battered women’s shelter, they give school supplies to underprivileged schools, they write to the troops. To vilify them? If you want to vilify me, I’m fair game, but vilifying my members is just wrong. They’re middle-class people, and somehow that’s a crime in this economy.
When my dad started out, even when I started out, it wasn’t an unusual thing to be a union member. When I got married the first time, 1971, it was like a Springsteen song, living in Jersey, got a union card and a wedding coat. Now it’s hard.
You were a chemical worker in New Jersey. What brought you to California?
I’d finished my degree in sociology and thought, “I can’t stand the weather.” I had to put a propane heater under the crankcase of my VW bus to get it warm enough to turn over. I got a second degree. I began working as a union organizer and came to L.A. when IBEW offered me a job.
Some of your workers make 25% to 50% more than non-DWP city workers. My father was a power company lineman for 40 years, and it’s a dangerous job, but not all of your 8,000-plus members are risking their lives every day.
That’s fair. But they don’t all make that much more [than City Hall employees]. We have a couple of garage attendants, and [critics] say they make 40% more than those at City Hall. Well, I don’t represent [the garage workers] at City Hall. The clerical part of membership is substantial, maybe 2,500, predominantly female, predominantly single mothers. When we had our strike in ’93, the women were the toughest. They had the most to lose. So if they make $60,000 a year, that’s why, and if people don’t like that —
What do working people have? Do they just [do as they’re] told? Or can they participate in politics, go on strike? I don’t think that’s something we should apologize for. My responsibility is to look after the welfare of my members.
Why should DWP workers get better pay than city employees? Isn’t a secretary a secretary?
The predominant part of our clerical force are customer service reps. They deal with pretty cranky people all day long.
[DWP employees’ pay] isn’t going to change rates. People in L.A. have low rates. People don’t understand that 40% of their bill is City Hall-generated, [that] DWP is the city’s bill collector. The City Council and mayor made [trash fees on your DWP bill] higher to pay for cops.
About 1,500 city employees were transferred to the DWP rather than being laid off; their salaries rose too.
They got training. I said: “Send over [City Hall] tree trimmers and we’ll train them to do live line clearance.” They make giraffes on the front lawn; we do live [power] line clearance. It isn’t the same.
Voters approved a DWP ratepayer advocate. What’s your thinking about that?
I’m ambivalent; the union never entered the fray. If we did, we might not have one. We bought an ad suggesting the city bring together people [to study the idea first]. Clearly they didn’t take our advice.
Garcetti said Greuel had not thoroughly audited the DWP. What about more audits?
If that’s what they want to do. DWP’s been audited every year. [Greuel] audited it more times than Carter had pills.
Your opponents characterize the union as a civic superpower and you as a “Kingmaker Bo$$.” The union defeated Proposition 32 last year but lost when it opposed Bernard C. Parks in his district in 2011. He won.
My dad told me your losses have as much to do with you as your wins. [Parks], a sitting councilman, almost got pushed into a runoff. I don’t check off “loss.”
Proposition B, the 2009 city solar initiative, was narrowly defeated. Critics said it was hastily assembled and benefited the union, not the ratepayers. I worked on it for two years. The people who opposed it were a bunch of right-wing bloggers. A low-turnout election, and they created the narrative that it was somehow about Local 18 seizing jurisdiction over alternative energy. Isn’t that what you’re suggesting [too]?
The only thing they defeated was community hire and incentives for locating solar manufacturing plants [here]. They turned it into a pejorative, the big lie.
Why doesn’t L.A. have more underground power lines?
Who’s going to pay for it? The residents don’t want to pay for it. They don’t want to pay for anything. They don’t want to pay for regulations that require them to do alternative energy. I don’t blame them for not wanting to pay for big business to get feed-in tariffs so they can gouge the ratepayers, but apparently nobody’s mad about that. They’d rather focus on how much my members make.
Should the proprietary departments — DWP, the harbor, the airports — be moved under direct city control?
I think it’s exactly the opposite. The city can’t manage anything. DWP runs like a business, no matter what the detractors say. We hardly ever have blackouts; if we have blackouts here, people freak out: “Oh, my cappuccino machine doesn’t work.”
There’s no problem with the way DWP is run now?
DWP ratepayers are not served very well by the regulatory compact that’s in place. In Sacramento, you have elected commissioners; in San Francisco, you have appointed commissioners, but from various sectors including labor. I’m not criticizing existing [DWP] commissioners, but they’re political appointees.
You want elected commissioners when you’ve complained about our low voter turnout?
Is that worse than having the City Council politically interfere with every decision?
How do you get along with your commissioners?
What do you make of the new mayor?
I say congratulations, you’re the mayor, all the best my friend. Be a good winner.
Why are you the bad guy in all matters DWP?
There’s no institutional memory about how anything got where it is today. As a result, you have bloggers who make it up as they go along. You have reporters who have the attention span of a nanosecond. Here’s [one thing that] got printed: DWP workers got a 15% [pay raise] over five years. I only went to Catholic school, but in Catholic school they taught us that would be 3% per year, and 3% is the industry average.
There’s not a lot of courage. You saw what happened in the mayor’s race — they all started throwing me overboard. It’s the “Casablanca” theory: There’s gambling going on! How did this happen? Give me my winnings!
The “B-word” — bankruptcy — has been floated around City Hall, absent capping union raises, pension reform. What’s the chance of bankruptcy?
It’s probably overstated. People who say that can’t wait to get their arms around the pension [reform]. I’ve been in talks for 18 months trying to do pension reform, and if anybody thinks I’m the problem, they don’t know what they’re talking about. We have an interest in our employer [the city] being [fiscally] healthy.
What’s next for you and the union?
I am so looking forward to not even talking about politics. We’re about burned out. I’m glad there are no city elections for at least a couple of years.
We started Working Californians about eight years ago. Now we have a 501(c)(3) charitable foundation, doing social innovation, social investment bonds. We’re interested in creating small businesses and an entrepreneurial environment in L.A. In New Orleans they have the Idea Village [to create and keep local businesses]. How do you do that here? That kind of stuff jazzes me.
L.A. is such a great city; we just can’t get out of our own way. This government can’t do it and won’t do it unless they get a press conference. Government [in general] can’t do it.
Did you really flip off LA Weekly writer Gene Maddaus from your office window?
[His expression says, “Of course.”] My entire staff is out walking precincts, I’m here with the [staff] women downstairs, and he scared them. On most days I’d pick up my bat and walk downstairs and say, “Get out of here,” but that’s what he wanted. My assistant [told him], “You have to leave, this is not a public building.” He refused, like a jackass, so she called the police. I did flip him off — he was jumping up and down like my Labradoodle at the back door.
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This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison’s interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.