As the nation recoiled this week over Republicans' secretive drafting of a mortal U.S. Senate health care bill that would cut insurance coverage for an estimated 22 million Americans, the L.A. City Council took a page from GOP leadership and approved a backroom deal for a majority of Department of Water and Power workers. Before Wednesday's council vote there were no public hearings and essentially zero opportunity for Angelenos to register their thoughts on the deal.
The five-year contract with IBEW Local 18, the union that represents about 9,000 of the city utility's 11,554 employees, will result in pay increases between 13 percent and 22 percent, depending on the rate of inflation. The union's people are the only city workers who don't pitch in for provided health care, and that's not going to change under this deal despite Mayor Eric Garcetti's 2013 campaign vow to overhaul the department and tackle the issue of insurance contributions. The big concession by the union was to kill mysterious DWP training institutes — they were first exposed by L.A. Weekly in 2005 — that cost city taxpayers about $4 million a year.
Three City Council members, Mitch O'Farrell, David Ryu and Mike Bonin, voted against the deal. The 11-3 vote was rare on a council where unanimous moves are the norm. But it was clear the three couldn't handle the utter stank of fast-tracking a huge raise for city workers at a time when L.A.'s working class is feeling so much pain. "At a time when there's a deep distrust of government," Ryu said during yesterday's meeting, "I feel like we're going backwards." "
The vote, he added, "will be highly scrutinized and looked at."
Indeed. Critics hit the roof. Jamie Court, president of the nonprofit group Consumer Watchdog, said Garcetti, widely believed to have aspirations for higher office, could end up paying at the ballot box. "There's nothing people can do except remember," he says. "They're counting on voters having short memories."
The City Council has almost made an industry out of anti–President Trump proclamations and ordinances. But it has acted deviously and Trump-like in its embrace of what appeared to be secret negotiations with IBEW boss Brian D'Arcy, who has the deep pockets of his union to pay back leaders who have scratched his back, critics say.
"This is huge giveaway to a politically powerful union leader who has generally been with the City Council and the mayor and their pet causes," Court says. "This is double-digit pay raises for workers reviled by most Angelenos for keeping them on hold, sending them erroneous bills, and not coming when they really need them. It's an outrageous abuse of power, and the council and the mayor should be ashamed."
Councilman Gil Cedillo would beg to differ. At the meeting he addressed DWP workers. "We appreciate what you do for us," he said. "In return for that, we're going to give you stability and certainty this summer."
It's a stability that most working-class residents of L.A. could only dream of. And it's a game being played with taxpayer and ratepayer money, critics say. Yet taxpayers and ratepayers had virtually no opportunity to weigh in on the outcome. "Obviously the aim was to get it passed quickly so there'll be less reverberations," says longtime City Hall watcher Howard P. Cohen, a political analyst.
Supporters of the raises argued that DWP workers would leave for the higher pay of private utilities if they didn't receive the boost. But critics now worry that other city employees will use the contract as a benchmark for their own deals. Cohen says they'll ask, "Why are these guys getting a free ride on health insurance?"
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Meanwhile Los Angeles County residents have seen a 3 percent decrease in real income since the year 2000, according to the California Housing Partnership Corporation. The median individual income here is $28,337, which is only a few thousand dollars above official poverty for a family of four. Nearly one in five Angelenos is poor. And homelessness increased by 23 percent this year.
The average pay of a DWP worker last year, according to the state Controller's office, is a whopping $102,997. On top of that, City Hall uses your cash to foot the bill for health and pension costs of an average $16,312 annually. These are mostly blue-collar folks, not professors, movie producers or lawyers. At least somebody's getting paid.
"There's no more middle class here," Cohen says. "You're either poor or your're rich. These folks are making six figures. It doesn't make sense."