Hostage City: Free LA from the Union Stranglehold

When I was a young journalist, I got involved in leading my union and fighting for empowerment of journalists in the newsroom, for equal pay for women and for the integrity of the news report.

It was a time when corporations were taking over newspapers and eliminating competition which is the key to a free press. I led a strike against Rupert Murdoch when I lived in Australia and he started fabricating the news during the constitutional crisis that followed the ousting of the Labor Party government in 1975.

I believe today that unions are vitally important to protect the rights of all workers, to improve pay and working conditions, especially of those employed on farms and in hospitals, retail outlets, service industries and other areas where organized labor has little impact.

But on this Labor Day, it's important to also recognize that organized labor has gone too far in the public sector. Cities and counties across California are facing bankruptcy because of the staggering labor costs, particularly the cost of public employee pensions.

Nowhere is this truer than in Los Angeles, a city taken hostage by its public employee unions.

LA is fast running out of cash, spending $1 million a day more than it has coming in, borrowing heavily to pay its bills, running a $500 million current deficit, facing a shortfall of more than $1 billion next year and twice that in three years when every dollar of payroll will require 50 cents more to cover the costs of pensions.

Councilman Bernard Parks warned Saturday that at the current rate of spending, LA will run out of cash by May and face potential bankruptcy unless drastic steps are taken now. That means laying off thousands of workers since 80 percent of the city budget goes for pay and benefits -- something that won't be easy politically or practically since city rules make job eliminations so complicated it could take six months or longer to lay anyone off.

The problem, Parks said, is unions have a stranglehold on power at City Hall. They elect the politicians, get sweetheart contracts from them and demand fidelity to their interests.

There's a taboo about broaching the subject of union power in LA, but Parks, in a three-hour session with the LA Neighborhood Council Coalition, decided to break it.

He's the only Council member who actually knows anything about the budget or has consistently tried to reduce spending. He also was the target of an $8 million independent expenditure campaign by organized labor to defeat him in the recent County Supervisor race won by Mark Ridley-Thomas and has seen during his four decades as a policeman and politician how the unions have come to take control of City Hall. He has watched his colleagues knuckle under to labor and how business interests come with hat in hand begging for crumbs from the table of power just like ordinary citizens.

The most glaring example of organized labor's excess of power is the Department of Water and Power which is virtually run by its union, the IBEW. Its boss, Brian D'Arcy, ruthlessly uses the threat of turning off the city's water and electricity to win spectacular pay raises and favorable work rules even as the infrastructure has been allowed to deteriorate and LA has fallen far behind other cities in California in replacing coal-powered plants with renewable energy.

It's a grim picture Parks paints but accurate.

It will take money from the business community and the awakening of the community to the seriousness of the situation to make a difference.

There's nothing mysterious about this. Many have seen it coming for a long time.

Parks has opened up the conversation about how we save LA. Clearly, it isn't just the budget that needs to be balanced. Power must also be balanced  so that business and labor and the community are equally able to protect and serve their often competing interests.

We have paid the ransom demanded by the public employee unions as long as we can but there's nothing left to pay them with. We can't afford the blank check for billions demanded by the DWP or higher rates, fees and taxes. We can't afford to mortgage our future more than we have. We can't afford to elect more politicians who are owned by them.

We are staring at bankruptcy as a city and its dire consequences. One way or another, the era of a city taken hostage by its workers must end. We must unite and free LA.

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Established in August of 2008 by writerartist Dianne V. Lawrence, The Neighborhood News covers the events, people, history, politics and historic architecture of communities throughout the Mid-City and West Adams area in Los Angeles Council District 10.

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