Mayor Eric Garcetti spent most of his campaign running against the L.A. Department of Water and Power. The DWP's union spent millions on his opponent, Wendy Greuel. Garcetti's campaign turned it against her, arguing that she would do their bidding.
He won. Now that he's in charge of the utility, Garcetti is still running against it. Last night, his office launched a campaign to “Fix DWP,” complete with an online petition calling for an end to the utility's “secret deals on costly work rules and perks.”
The campaign is over. Long live the campaign.
Garcetti is a recent convert to the fight against out-of-control salaries at the DWP. He served on the L.A. City Council during two previous rounds of contract negotiations, both times voting in favor of contracts that, in hindsight, seem absurdly generous.
Then as now, there was great outcry among ratepayers about DWP salaries. But Garcetti downplayed those concerns when he voted to approve the last union contract in 2009, which gave annual raises of 2-4 percent. “I understand the skepticism,” he said at the time, before arguing that the contract would somehow save money. “I'm less interested in sending a message than I am in doing good public policy.”
As mayor, however, Garcetti has discovered the importance of sending a message. So far, he has balked at approving a contract that would freeze DWP salaries in place for three years. The fact that the DWP union has agreed to this is a sign of how weak it is in the wake of Greuel's defeat. It would be the cheapest contract the union has received in a generation. And yet Garcetti now argues it does not go far enough in holding down costs.
Had Garcetti negotiated this deal himself, he would probably hail it as a great victory for the ratepayers. But he didn't, and so he has to wring more concessions out of the union. It's hard to imagine how the contract could do much better on the issue of salaries. Three zeroes is more than anyone could have asked for during the mayoral campaign. And so Garcetti, following the lead of ratepayer advocate Fred Pickel, wants to turn the conversation to “work rules.”
In essence, the issue is, “How many DWP people does it take to screw in a lightbulb?” Pickel says. “And how busy are these teams screwing in lightbulbs?
The answers to those questions are tied up in side agreements and customs that have accumulated at the utility over the years. Pickel would like to get a full accounting of them, and compare them to processes at other utilities. That will take a while, so it's not the sort of thing that can be added to the union contract now under negotiation.
What Garcetti would like is a clause allowing the contract to be reopened at some point in the future to re-work some of these side agreements. He would also like to be seen publicly fighting the DWP union on this point. Another rate increase is due to come along in about six months, and ratepayers will start grousing about overpaid DWP workers again. At that point, it would help for Garcetti to have a tangible achievement in this area, and it would be even better if a lot of people knew about it.
Hence his campaign against the
side agreements — sorry, the “secret deals on costly work rules and perks.”
The City Council seems inclined to let him play this out, at least for a little while. They share the concerns about costs, and if there's a better deal to be had, then why not go for it. But they seem also to be a little weary of the constant campaigning, and somewhat concerned that too much of this is for show. They remember Garcetti's tenure on the council, when he was happy to approve deals that were far more generous than the one he is now rejecting.
At some point, the council may lose its patience. From there, who knows how it plays out.