12/2/07

Los Angeles gov't unions look out for #1

Los Angeles is a union town.

No, not in the sense that years ago, before foreign competition, Detroit and Pittsburgh were "union towns" because of the sway auto and steelworkers held in the community. And no, this has nothing to do with the writers strike where people in elite Hollywood jobs are squaring off against management over who will reap the profits from the new media.

Los Angeles is a union town because the city is run by the public-employee unions for the benefit of the public-employee unions, and all other considerations are secondary.

For years, many Californians and much of the nation have been snickering over "Planet San Francisco," where foreign-policy issues and blocking military recruiters from local campuses take priority over picking up the trash. Now it is Los Angeles that is becoming the butt of jokes.

Recently the City Council approved a 23 percent pay increase for city employees represented by six unions. (These raises do not include public safety or Department of Water and Power workers, who are treated even more generously.) The pay increases, which will take effect over the next five years, are in addition to "step increases" that can add 5.5 percent per year to a worker's pay.

No big deal. City Council members defended these generous increases because the contracts provided a major incentive for employees to find new cost savings in running the city. Sounds good - except that the incentive turned out to be that the city workers get to keep all the savings.

Welcome to Planet Los Angeles, where over the last seven years, employee costs have surged 53 percent, an average of 7.5 percent per year, according to a Daily News study.

"It's almost like we're working for them; they aren't there to serve us," Jack Kyser, the usually perspicacious chief economist for the nonprofit Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp., told the newspaper.

What do you mean, "almost," Jack?

The city should have plenty of money - general fund revenues are rising by an average of 5.7 percent annually. But due to the ever-increasing obligation to the workers, the city is expecting a shortfall of $300 million for the next budget year.

And what do we get for our money - better services or more workers to quickly respond to our needs? No, we just get better-paid employees who continue to provide the same low quality of service that has become the norm in this city.

Some will remember when public employees received a little less than those in the private sector in return for security - governments did not go out of business. To make up for a little less money up front, most governments provided employees with desirable pensions for a worry-free retirement.

Now, pay, pensions and medical insurance benefits are providing benefits of which all but the most affluent in the private sector are envious.

This open-pocket approach to dealing with city workers goes back over three decades. Tom Bradley put together a coalition of public employees and developers that allowed him to serve five terms as mayor. Taking care of city workers guaranteed their support in each successive election.

When entrepreneur Richard Riordan was elected mayor, his mantra was to pay for the best and brightest to make government work productively and efficiently. Problem was, he could not seem to tell the difference between bright lights and dim bulbs, so he naively agreed to pay everyone more. When DWP workers went out on strike, he agreed to such an outlandishly generous contract that it became the standard for every other union when negotiating a contract with the city.

After James Hahn was elected to office, he weakened his political clout through maladroit moves like ignoring the concerns of San Fernando Valley residents who were being underserved by the city, and by refusing to rehire Police Chief Bernard Parks, who was especially popular in the black community. How to deal with his political slippage? Go back to what worked for Bradley, and up the pay of the most powerful group in the city - the public employees.

Although this was not enough to save Hahn from Antonio Villaraigosa, who not incidentally was a former union organizer, the unions were able to keep their gains and reap even more under the new mayor. One of Villaraigosa's first decisions was not to challenge another egregiously generous contract for the DWP, which was left on his desk by the outgoing Hahn. Now all the other city workers are even more determined to catch up with their colleagues at the DWP.

Don't expect this otherworldly Los Angeles equation to change soon. The unions are now the most powerful force in local politics. They go all out to elect those candidates who are willing to swear undying fealty to the union cause. When it is time to negotiate contracts, the unions control both sides of the bargaining table.

Jon Coupal is president of the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association. Contact him through the organization's Web site, www.hjta.org.

(dailynews.com)

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