Bob Aquino must feel a little besieged these days. Not only has the Los Angeles city employees union he heads been the target of membership raids by a rival union, but now his members find themselves on the municipal chopping block as the first municipal employees facing layoff notices.
The story has its roots in Aquino's Engineers and Architects Association's bitter feud with Local 721 of the Service Employees International Union, a union long allied with Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. SEIU 721 and the Association of Federal, State, County and Municipal Employees are the dominant players within the Coalition of L.A. City Unions, the umbrella organization that since 2008 has been negotiating with the city's Chief Administrative Officer to shield as many of its 22,000 constituent members as possible from the current budget meltdown.The EAA is not a member of the coalition.
The coalition has pressed the city to allow its members to retire early, rather than force them out through layoffs and furloughs. Although Villaraigosa had seemed to backtrack last March on pledges to consider early retirement, on Monday the two sides reached a tentative agreement embracing early retirements. When the pact was announced, however, it also became clear that members of EAA, which was not a signatory to the deal, would be the first city employees laid off. Today, EAA lawyers are going to court to try to block the agreement, contesting the legality of unilateral furloughs.
When asked Tuesday by the L.A. Weekly if he thought this was payback
for the ongoing membership war between the 7800-member EAA, which
includes accountants, chemists, forensic scientists and other highly
paid specialists, and the much larger SEIU 721, Aquino did not hesitate
“It's completely related,” EAA's executive director said, and then
outlined his version of SEIU's alleged raiding war against EAA, a
dispute in which SEIU encouraged Aquino's members to decertify from EAA
and re-affiliate with SEIU.
“The mayor was underwriting SEIU's attempt to take over EAA,” Aquino
said. “The mayor had city management support SEIU – supervisors
directly told [our] members to vote for SEIU. He gave city office space
and telephones to SEIU. He used to work for SEIU and derives a lot of
political capital from SEIU.”
SEIU 721's regional director, Julie Butcher, denies Aquino's charges.
“If there's such a thing as union malpractice,” Butcher says, “he's
guilty of it. We've been helping [EAA's] members escape to find a union
that respects their work. His animosity towards the city overshadows
his ability to represent his membership.”
It's no secret that over the past year deep fissures have broken out
in an American labor movement first split in 2005 when the SEIU and its
international president, Andy Stern, led a walkout of six other large
unions from the AFL-CIO. This has been followed by open warfare among
unionized healthcare, hospitality and service workers belonging to SEIU
locals and rival unions. In a remarkable decision, the Los Angeles
County Federation of Labor, whose actions are largely spearheaded by
SEIU locals, passed a resolution in April condemning SEIU interference
in the affairs of other L.A. unions.
Yet EAA is hardly without its own critics. Aquino and his union
often find themselves at odds with the rest of the local labor
movement, some of whose leaders view EAA as an enclave of highly paid
white-collar workers who don't feel sufficiently motivated by labor
solidarity. (For a description, see Jeffrey Anderson's 2005 L.A. Weekly
article, Second Banana.) Last year, for example, EAA came out
against Measure R and its half-cent tax hike — while the rest of L.A.
labor, led by the County Fed, mobilized its members to ensure its
Its prickly relations with other unions may explain EAA's refusal to
join the coalition, whose other unions include Teamsters Local 911,
Laborers' International Union Local 777, International Union of
Operating Engineers Local 501 and the L.A./O.C. County Building and
Construction Trades Council. Aquino claims that its board of governors
decided not to join the coalition because EAA would not have voting
representation proportional to its size. Beyond this, he says that
additional nonstarters included the other unions' willingness to accept
“reopeners” – mechanisms that permit contracts previously hammered out
with the city to be renegotiated during times of economic emergencies.
Aquino told the L.A. Weekly that, like other city unions, EAA had
agreed to consider wage freezes, but would not part with a
three-percent cost of living raise it had won in its last contract with
Here again, though, memories of his union's fights
with SEIU 721 may have played a role in Aquino's unwillingness to participate
in those negotiations.
“721 is not a union,” Aquino says flatly. “SEIU doesn't argue with management – all their leaders want are dues.”
“The bottom line,” says Barbara Maynard, a spokeswoman for the
coalition, “is that we saved the city a lot of money and saved jobs for
Even now, with EAA's lawyers trying to derail the still-unratified
agreement between City Hall and the coalition, Aquino sounds
“We're still willing to negotiate,” he said.