Mon, May

Insider: How DWP Union Won the New Contract Battle … Without a Single Cut or Bruise


BUTCHER SHOP--A surprising much has been already written about the DWP deal including this alarmist screed Will outrageous DWP pay hikes ignite anti-union firestorm in California? in which the author hyperventilates in horror that workers who climb 75 feet in the air to fix live electric lines will see increasing wages in the years to come and then vividly imagines the resultant revolt of the masses.


Susan Shelley, columnist for the Southern California News Group, opens her opinion piece in dramatic fashion: “One day, when California is a right-to-work state, and paying dues to a union is entirely optional, someone may ask you how the voters of a state with some of the most powerful labor unions on the planet ever adopted a right-to-work law.”

She goes on in hysterical hyperbole: “Save a copy of this week’s newspapers to show them how our freshly re-elected city officials rushed to approve a massively generous pay raise for the already overpaid employees of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.”

I cover our little local water district for the CV a Weekly and had the honor of writing two stories about the Crescenta Valley Water District’s recent rate increase debate.  The CVWD provides water and sewage services to 8000 customers. This year the District proposed an increase of $5.46 per month.  Twenty-two members of the community attended the largest of the elected board’s public hearings.

Outside one meeting I nearly dropped my reporter persona and almost got into it with a woman who kept saying, “… in the private sector …” I asked, politely, Socratically even, if water isn’t different. Do we really want private water?

At the last minute, one of the members of the board the small non-profit, community water district moved to reduce the rate increase. “I know we’ve got 34 workers on staff right now,” Director Judy Tejeda began her question, “but can’t we make due with 33?”

People in the audience were shocked when one resident spoke in support of the rate increase. “Things cost more. We all know that. We are privileged, privileged to live in a lush Mediterranean climate, fortunate to have reserves of good water. Now is the time to invest in infrastructure improvements, adding to our reserves.”

The largest employers in Los Angeles County are these, in this order: 

  • Los Angeles County
  • City of Los Angeles
  • University of California, Los Angeles
  • Federal government (non-defense)
  • Kaiser

Note that the first private-sector job shows up 30,000 jobs into that list. Like it or not, the region’s largest employers are the government. These employers set wage and benefit standards, if those exist at all these days. No private sector employer is providing better working circumstances than the City and County of Los Angeles.

Rather than begrudge workers who make sure we have safe, clean drinking water and electricity at the turn of the switch, at a cost lower than other utilities, we should honor their work, recognize their importance in the vibrancy of LA’s neighborhoods.

Steve Lopez explained how DWP’s union won at the bargaining table in his June 28 column, How one union boss manages to outfox LA politicians — and deliver the goods to his members: “David Wright, the current GM, told me last week that DWP gave up on healthcare contributions in this contract because when they sat down to negotiate, D’Arcy insisted it was a non-starter. DWP feared IBEW would strike over that issue, so they moved on.”  

That’s power, actual, potential, and kinetic. The workers are united, willing to act together, and essential. The employer knows they will strike and fears it.

Then GM David Freeman, what? About 12 or 13 GMs ago? explained it in his own undeniable style to the LA Weekly in 2005 Where’s the DWP’s $12 million

“To Freeman’s way of thinking, it seemed that Local 18’s tendency to ‘blur the lines between [negotiating] and criminal extortion’— as Chaudhry described its squeezing of concessions from DWP management — was a good thing. Local 18 business manager Brian D’Arcy should be proud of himself, crowed Freeman, as he stood near Hollywood Boulevard in his trademark Western hat. ‘Hell, if I was Brian [D’Arcy] I’d nail that memo to the wall of the union hall as a badge of honor,’ Freeman said. ‘It’s his job to do his best for the members. If managers can’t stand up to him, that’s their fault.’”

Note to workers: build a powerful union that scares the boss.

For many, many years, that’s how bargaining worked in Los Angeles. Local 18 would bargain a great deal at the DWP and the rest of the city unions would struggle to figure out how to win most of its parts for the rest of our members, particularly the wage increase patterns. Yeah, we’d all get whipsawed and pitted against each other to the benefit of the employer. It’s a significant part of what led to the successful creation of the Coalition of LA City Unions.

I quote myself to offer a better way forward Want Real Reform at DWP? Make DWP a Part of the City!  

“In 1988, I had my first argument with a manager at DWP. I said, ‘the City’ and George Pengaman said, ‘the Company.; We did that for a while. The City. The Company. It was foretelling. 

Truck drivers in the City wave or nod  when they pass each other driving, like motorcycles or new moms (my lovely daughter-in-law Lidia tells me!) But not the DWP trucks.

It is time for the DWP to venture down the hill into the rest of the City, to allow other city departments to help, to embrace the LA in its name and act like a big part of a vital City. And finally … to fulfill the promise of water and power owned by the people.”

(Julie Butcher writes for CityWatch and is a retired union leader now enjoying her new La Crescenta home and her first grandchild. She can be reached at [email protected] or on her new blog ‘The Butcher Shop - No Bones about It.’)


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