Ron Kaye: Working for the union or fighting it

In Glendale, utility workers found their paychecks a little smaller last week — the price of the inability of their union, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 18, to negotiate an initial contract two years after winning the right to represent them.

Down the road, Pasadena Water and Power workers are all steamed up over the city's resistance to giving in to their demands on terms for a new contract that would move them closer to matching the sweetheart deal enjoyed by their union brothers and sisters at the L.A. Department of Water and Power thanks to IBEW business manager Brian D'Arcy, the perfect model of a ruthless old-fashioned union boss.

Seen by many big shots as the "smartest and toughest guy at City Hall," D'Arcy is having an unusual run of bad luck.

He gambled millions of dollars of his member's money on getting a patsy elected L.A. mayor — an over-the-top play that backfired, made the union the target of negative ads and media criticism, and was widely blamed for the defeat of Wendy Greuel, who had the backing of nearly all of the city's business, labor and civic elite.

Now he faces contract talks with new L.A. mayor Eric Garcetti, who owes him no favors and will be emboldened to hold the line on wages and benefits at a time when the economic recovery remains fragile and ratepayers are being socked with a steady stream of big rate hikes.

All of those factors may have come together to convince D'Arcy — better known for making threats and obscene gestures to reporters than giving interviews — to sit down for a lengthy chat with L.A. Times columnist Patt Morrison, who produced a revealing Q & A last week in which the union boss, in typical fashion, blamed everyone else for what went wrong and deflected all responsibility for anything except to enrich the IBEW and its members.

Greuel's consultant was "tone deaf" and ran a "crappy campaign." His critics are the "right-wing apparatchiks" who see union workers as the "enemy." Utility workers have it hard because they have to deal with "pretty cranky people all day long" — you know, like the people who pay the bills for inflated salaries and benefits and expect good service.

"My responsibility is to look after the welfare of my members," D'Arcy declared.

Really? That's all?

Is that any different than the bankers and speculators who brought down the economy, wiped out the savings and nest eggs of millions, foreclosed on their homes and then got bailed out by taxpayers?

Or the companies that poison the air, the water and the land in the name of profits?

Or all the politicians who have turned public service into self-service, selling their votes to the highest bidder?

Greed is accepted these days but that doesn't mean that it's good. It is a symptom of how we have lost our moral compass, forgotten that our fates are all bound together; and D'Arcy is a symbol of what has gone so wrong.

It's too early to celebrate how the laws of karma have caught up with D'Arcy, but it has been a long time since anyone stood up to his bullying the way Glendale did in imposing its year-old last and final offer that included the 1.75% pay cut that took effect last week. Or the way Pasadena did in rebuffing the IBEW tactic of packing the City Council chambers and denouncing officials for failing to invest more in infrastructure — as if they cared about anything other than higher wages and lucrative perks.

That's a joke, of course, to anyone who has seen how D'Arcy operates, how he used threats of turning off the lights and busting politicians who got in his way to win contracts in L.A. with raises that gave his members a 40% to 50% premium over others in the city, and raised expectations of getting the same deals among utility workers throughout the region.

Apart from police and fire, utilities are the most important service provided by local governments that own their own water and power agencies. That includes cities like Glendale, Pasadena, Burbank and Los Angeles. All of them have to deal with the IBEW.

Each of these municipal utilities is seeking a long succession of annual rate hikes to provide the cash needed for long overdue capital investments in infrastructure, to cover the rising cost of increasingly scarce water supplies, and to meet escalating demands for green energy sources.

Glendale and Pasadena have scheduled hearings on rate hikes and L.A. is gearing for even sharper increases as pressure builds to end its reliance on cheap, dirty coal-fired plants.

A lot is at stake at a time when many, even in the public sector, are losing ground economically and America is increasingly a two-class society.

Blowing hot air as usual, D'Arcy told Morrison: "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."

The average wage of LADWP workers is $100,000 a year; for my money, that puts them in a pretty affluent class compared to the average person who is paying the bills.

You can sit on your hands and let D'Arcy blackmail your city officials, as he has done so often for so long, or you can stand up and visibly let them know it's time to rein him in and look after the interests of ratepayers and taxpayers.

Or you'll all be singing that old union song with an ironic twist in the lyric: "I'm working for the union, I'm working for the union till the day I die."


RON KAYE can be reached at Share your thoughts and stories with him.

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