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The Irked and the Jerked

Photo by Virginia Lee Hunter

The most striking thing about both the mayor’s campaign for the new charter and the campaign of many City Council members against it is how narrow are the bases of support on which each side relies. The mayor has turned to his latter-day Committee of 25, a gaggle of business buddies who have funded the campaign to the tune of around $1.5 million. For their part, the anti-new-charter die-hards on the council — Jackie Goldberg, Ruth Galanter, Richard Alatorre and others — have leaned mightily on the city’s unions and other once-and-future council supplicants and allies, though it’s very doubtful these groups will be able to pony up anything like the mayor’s million-five.

What’s notable about the labor endorsements that the new charter’s opponents have been able to win over the past couple of weeks is that the unions who signed on have had to go back on their word. After all, the main city unions, such as the Police Protective League and the Service Employees International Union Local 347, were more than casual participants in the drafting process. Their leaders were present at virtually every meeting of the two charter-reform commissions; they offered their input and informally gave their blessing to the final language. As a result of their efforts, and those of the County Federation of Labor, the proposed new charter gives constitutional standing to the city’s living-wage policy; it protects city-employee retirement benefits and civil-service status; it enables employees to participate in neighborhood councils in the neighborhoods where they work as well as those they live in. It codifies some real if modest gains for working people in Los Angeles — but not real enough, apparently, to overcome the last-minute opposition of such longtime labor champions as Goldberg.

While labor has flipped its position, however, it still hasn’t perfected its catechism of why exactly it opposes the new charter. Asked about its new position, one county labor leader told me that "[Councilman Richard] Alatorre says there aren’t more than 15 people who really care about this, and he’s right." But that argues more for staying out than for opposing the document. Asked by the Times about the case that Alatorre and Co. made to sway the County Fed board, Fed chieftain Miguel Contreras recounted that they’d said, "We’ve been labor’s champion. Trust us on this one."

In the end, labor trusted the council’s last-minute reassessment of the new charter — more, it seems, than it trusted its own considered judgment. Unlike the unions, the members of the City Council largely stayed away from the charter hearings and steered clear of the drafting process, coming out in opposition to the document only in the final six weeks of a two-year process. Union leaders like Local 347’s Julie Butcher, by contrast, sweated every comma in the new charter to make sure that worker rights were preserved or enhanced. Now Butcher claims to agree with her council allies that the new charter grants too much power to the mayor. But it’s hard to believe that anyone as sharp as Butcher misunderstood the modest shifts in the balance of power during all those months that she sat in on the charter hearings. Or that constitutional scholar Alatorre found in the new document a hitherto unexamined clause, granting the mayor vast and ominous responsibilities, that had somehow escaped Butcher’s attention.

These eleventh-hour flip-flops on the new charter tell us two things about the charter itself and a third thing about the floppees (the city-employee unions): first, that the changes the charter makes are modest to a fault; second, that the effect of these modest changes is to modestly reduce the power of the City Council; and third, that the city’s public-sector unions have enough power to merit courting in election season but not enough power to avoid getting jerked around by their bosses, the city’s elected officials.

In the first instance, all these union reversals (from the Fed, the cops, Butcher’s local and more) wouldn’t be occurring if the new charter actually made some dramatic changes in the structure of city government or the balance of power therein. If it did, these unions would have set themselves in stone, either pro or con, some time ago. If it did, we would have heard of the council’s discontent at a far earlier date.

In fact, most of the proposed changes were drafted by an elected charter commission whose members were endorsed, two years ago, by the very councilmen and -women who today oppose the new charter. Indeed, it was Jackie Goldberg more than anyone else who recruited candidates to run for the elected commission; that is why a progressive civil-libertarian attorney like Erwin Chemerinsky ended up as chair of the commission. Today, it is Jackie Goldberg who heads the opposition to what is, in essence, the handiwork of her own slate of candidates. Precisely because it was her slate of candidates that prevailed, however, the new charter is a document that progressives and "small-d" democrats can support. It creates a more powerful inspector general of the Police Department; it creates neighborhood councils that can in time exert some local control over development; it clarifies accountability over city departments.

Second, however, Goldberg’s protégés did make some modest reductions in the power of the City Council. They did not fundamentally alter the council’s Prop. 5 powers, which give the council the ability to overturn the policies of city commissions. They did, however, require the council to muster 10 (out of 15) votes, rather than the current eight, to overturn a mayor’s firing of a city department head. And by proposing neighborhood councils, they created a kind of shadow legislature beneath the council — though, in fact, many council members already have de facto neighborhood councils in their districts. It is these changes, modest though they be, that have so irked the council in recent weeks.

As the council has been irked, so the unions have been jerked. It’s been a particularly rocky year for Butcher’s union, SEIU Local 347. In late winter, the local’s own candidate to succeed the outgoing Alatorre in the 14th Council District, Jorge Mancillas, failed both to win the County Fed endorsement and then to get enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. At least partly at Alatorre’s behest, the local then settled upon Luis Cetina, an obscure convert from Republicanism in one of the city’s most heavily Dem-ocratic districts, as its backup candidate. In April’s primary, Cetina finished a distant fifth. And now, as a suitable climax to the election season, Butcher has reversed field and come out against a charter that she took an active hand in shaping.

In the choices that Butcher’s union made in the 14th and on the charter, that is, it chose to appease Alatorre and other council allies rather than stand up for a candidate and a charter in which it actually believed. Thus did the imperatives of "inside ball" eclipse the union’s concern for the public good. The life of any public-sector union at campaign time is necessarily a bit rocky, but the roller-coaster ride of Local 347 this year leaves defenders of principled public unionism — anyway, it leaves this defender — gasping and woozy. The raison d’être for unions cannot be that they collectivize the workers’ fear of retaliation from the boss.

The turnout projectors are projecting turnout for the June 8 election at around 15 percent of registered city voters. It wasn’t ever thus. In 1924, the last time the citizens of Los Angeles voted in a whole new charter, 60 percent of them trudged to the polls. Three-quarters of a century later, the percentage of participating Angelenos will likely have declined by three-quarters.

Which seems to me in itself an indictment of the current city charter. Whatever claims its defenders may make for it, as they seek to avert the adoption of a new one in next Tuesday’s election, they cannot argue that it has fostered a city government in which Angelenos take much interest, let alone ownership. If only for its creation of advisory neighborhood councils in a city where the words civic participation have become virtually oxymoronic, the proposed new charter merits your support.

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