Union leader defends Villaraigosa in the wake of pension vote
A day after the Los Angeles City Council backed Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's push to roll back pensions for newly hired city employees, the president of one of the state's biggest private sector unions defended the mayor, saying he is "not the enemy" of workers.
For weeks, Villaraigosa's push to raise the retirement age and cut benefits for new civilian employees has drawn fire from Service Employees International Union Local 721, which represents 10,000 city employees. The group has threatened a lawsuit and repeatedly compared the mayor to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican and national lightning rod of union ire over his efforts to take away public employee collective bargaining rights.
But a day after the pension vote, Villaraigosa drew cheers from members of SEIU United Service Workers West, which represents 40,000 janitors, security guards and other low-wage workers. Those workers applauded Villaraigosa as he urged Latino voters to show up for the Nov. 6 election.
Mike Garcia, president of SEIU's United Service Workers West, declined to comment on the City Hall pension reform controversy. But he showed no interest in fueling comparisons between Villaraigosa and Walker.
“Antonio is not the enemy. The 1% is the enemy,” said Garcia, making a reference to the catchphrase popularized by the nationwide Occupy movement, which has denounced Wall Street and banks in particular.
Garcia said his organization's fight is different from the SEIU chapter at City Hall. His local represents low-wage workers trying to get health insurance, citizenship and "dignity and respect," he said. "Someday they might even dream of having a pension,” he added.The comments came a day after SEIU members working for the city rallied against pension reductions for new workers, wearing Cheeseheads -- popular with Wisconsin's Green Bay Packers fans -- in an effort to drive home their Walker-Villaraigosa comparison. Ian Thompson, a spokesman for SEIU Local 721, said his group stands by its position, adding both the mayor and Walker have worked to sidestep the collective bargaining process.
“The mayor and City Council are doing the work of the 1% by cutting the pensions of future city workers,” he said. “They are taking away the retirement security of working families. The mayor has a penchant for making deals with billionaires, but breaking deals with city workers. We don’t think that’s how the city should run.”
Villaraigosa, for his part, thanked the council -- and President Herb Wesson in particular -- for backing his plan, which will receive a final vote next month. He said he feels "very comfortable" with the pension plan, which is designed to save between $30 million and $70 million over five years and give full retirement to those who leave city employment at 65, up from 55 under the current system.
"I care about the employees and want them to have a pension that will be solvent into the future,” he said.
The plan does not apply to police officers, firefighters or employees at the Department of Water and Power.
-- David Zahniser at Los Angeles City Hall
Photo: Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa during a news conference Sept. 19. Credit: Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times