A demonstration at the airport on Sunday by 90 of the 9,000 members of the Engineers and Architects Association (EAA) was a reminder that the city’s salary structure is out of whack — and that someday, the mayor and the City Council must deal with pay disparities between thousands of city workers and those at the Department of Water and Power.

The job action, which included a strike threat, places EAA boss Robert Aquino in heavy company alongside Brian D’Arcy, head of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 18. Last summer, D’Arcy, whose union controls 95 percent of the DWP work force, threatened to strike and forced the city to approve raises between 16 percent and 30 percent over five years, after city workers settled last year for 6 percent over three years.

Aquino seeks parity with the IBEW and cost-of-living increases to match the gains that D’Arcy won recently. It’s debatable whether Aquino — pronounced “A-Quee-No” — belongs on the same stage as D’Arcy. Or whether he has chosen the right time to demand parity between his members and members of the IBEW, who already make up to 60 percent more than city workers who perform the same or similar jobs as their counterparts at the DWP.

There are signs that Aquino presides over a disengaged membership that is not interested in a bloody battle. Observers wonder whether anyone will notice if the EAA strikes. Aquino’s style and background, coupled with his methods and the EAA’s unique history, also have the city’s labor community wondering what, if anything, he can accomplish.

Aquino set the EAA on its current course long ago. Sources say he abruptly declared an impasse with the city in 2004, and that for the second time in five years he has left his membership without a contract for more than a year. On November 20, a group of 400 EAA members approved job actions “up to and including strike” by a voice vote. Two days later, on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving, EAA members piled into City Hall as Aquino announced his intent to strike if the city does not meet his demands. His members include police crime-lab workers, computer technicians, airport-runway supervisors and management analysts. Aquino claims that in 129 out of the 140 job classes the IBEW and EAA have in common, IBEW members earn more. “EAA members are treated as three-fifths of an [IBEW member],” he said. Aquino did not return calls for comment.

Last Sunday’s demonstration was supposed to slow down airport traffic and show Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa that Aquino means business. Holiday travelers, much less Villaraigosa, barely noticed. With the city facing a $248 million deficit, the mayor already has said he cannot afford what Aquino is asking for. “It would be irresponsible for me and the city to provide a raise anywhere near what’s being asked for right now,” he said.

Villaraigosa can thank himself for this confrontation, labor observers say. The IBEW deal, which expanded an existing pay disparity between DWP and city workers, was quietly negotiated during the mayoral transition. Once the deal was exposed, city officials scrambled to deflect responsibility. Villaraigosa took several different positions. Aided by the L.A. Times, which has ignored what remains a mystery in City Hall, he blamed the deal on the Hahn administration. Then he hid behind a private attorney’s opinion citing the potential for an IBEW lawsuit against the city if it rejected the deal, despite an opinion from the City Attorney’s Office that the council could renegotiate in good faith.

Unlike Aquino, D’Arcy had more than bluster working in his favor. He is an old ally of Villaraigosa’s. The IBEW broke from the County Federation of Labor in endorsing Villaraigosa and spent more than $300,000 to see Hahn defeated. With command of the DWP work force and no DWP strike plan in place, D’Arcy purportedly has the ability to shut down the city. The EAA also backed Villaraigosa, and spent more than $100,000 on his behalf. But Aquino could have trouble mustering support within his own ranks to back up his tough talk, EAA members say.

The EAA’s highest-paid members earn more than $100,000 per year. It is considered a white-collar union whose members don’t naturally think “union.” In questioning Aquino’s leadership, some members say he has little or no strike fund to weather a work stoppage, which could fail to sufficiently disrupt city services and force concessions anyway. Others say he is driven by the percentage of dues he can reap from large salary increases.

“The cake has been cut,” EAA member Leroy Beavers, a payroll worker in the Controller’s Office, said on Tuesday. He was among 10 members who voted against the job action. City unions are under contract until 2007, Beavers says. The IBEW is locked in for the next five years. “EAA is over a year late with this action,” he noted.

Others said most EAA members are not paying much attention. Rodger Shimatsu, a management analyst with the Board of Public Works, called the 400-member voice vote “a travesty.” In an e-mail to fellow members, obtained by the Weekly, he wrote, “Is it not strange that only 400 members should dictate the future of 8,000 members?” On Tuesday, he said, “If we go out on strike, screw it, I’m working. Most of the analysts I know feel the same way.” Another EAA member, who requested anonymity, said a lot of members would cross the picket line, some by accident because it would be so small they would miss it. The EAA member called the job actions “foolhardy.”

The Weekly spoke to the leaders of five city unions this week. All expressed their support for any union that can gain a better wage for its members. They all acknowledged that the IBEW’s recent settlement raised the expectations of workers citywide. They stated their convictions that the city has made a mess of the pay structure among similar job classes across union and departmental lines. But on the condition of anonymity, several of them said Aquino is out on a limb without the credibility or the clout to achieve much success for his own members or for the greater labor community.

For starters, there is a process for negotiating that some say Aquino has bucked. In 2004, sources say, he walked away after one meeting when the city refused his demand for cost-of-living increases just shy of what firefighters are getting: 8.5 percent over three years. Then there is his temperament. Recently, he publicly called out Martin Ludlow, leader of the County Federation of Labor, before the issuance of a strike-sanction letter that is the customary first step toward bringing the federation together to discuss whether to throw its collective weight behind a particular union. According to Jim Hilfenhaus, public-affairs director of Laborers’ Union Local 300, when Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 347 leader Julie Butcher’s car was torched earlier this year, Aquino cracked, “If it were me, it wouldn’t have been her car.” Hilfenhaus also recalls Aquino bursting into the County Fed’s endorsement meeting before the mayoral election to loudly throw his support to Villaraigosa. “No one knew who he was. People said ‘Who is this lunatic?’ ” Hilfenhaus said.

“Maybe he has a mandate to be militant, but he looks as if he’s going to self-destruct,” said one city labor leader. “He’s completely swimming upstream,” said another. “This is what it looks like to go it alone,” said a third.

Pat McOsker, head of the United Firefighters of Los Angeles, said, “Maybe I’m in the minority, but I’m not bothered by what Bob is doing. Time will tell if he’s chosen effective methods.”

Aquino is a former Teamster. Though there is much talk about his rough-and-tumble past, details are hard to come by. In 1991, news reports state that Aquino was among 13 business agents who tried to force the resignation of a controversial chief officer of Teamsters Local 63 named Robert Marciel, who had been accused of ballot fraud by court-appointed Teamsters election officials. Marciel fired Aquino in July 1991, according to news reports, which annotated that local’s troubled history with a recap of a 1988 federal jury award of $768,000, after several union members were attacked while walking to a nominating meeting. Marciel was a defendant but was found not personally liable.

Aquino took over the EAA around 1999 or 2000, sources say. It had been a conservative shop, run by Bob Duncan, for the previous 25 years. The EAA was large, unaffiliated and thought to be the most Democratic union in the city, veteran labor leaders say. Aquino, after having worked with the father of an EAA board member, came in claiming to have bargaining experience with a warehouse unit of the Teamsters, labor leaders say. He possesses a hard-nosed style reminiscent of the old Teamsters.

The EAA has a complicated history. The IBEW has tried for years to take it over, losing a tough decertification fight in the late 1990s, around the same time that close to 1,000 EAA members at the DWP accepted buyouts due to cost cutting. Several years later, the IBEW and SEIU Local 347 filed competing decertification petitions, which led the EAA to affiliate with the International Union of Police Associations. The Employee Relations Board rejected the SEIU’s petition in 2004, and by then close to 1,000 EAA members at the DWP voted to join the IBEW.

The IBEW’s increased membership helped shore up D’Arcy’s dominance of the nation’s largest public utility. Former EAA members at the DWP promptly received generous raises and a taste of the preferential treatment that IBEW members have long enjoyed. Meanwhile, in 2004, Aquino made an unsuccessful bid to unionize more than 200 aides to City Council members, on the heels of an unsuccessful bid to unionize city senior personnel analysts.

Now Aquino is looking to ride D’Arcy’s coattails, as the city braces for another chapter in the slow grind toward pay equity.

LA Weekly