Written By Tony Wilkinson

Nothing important happens at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power without the tacit approval of Brian D’Arcy. That power comes from two decades of effective work as the business manager of International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 18, DWP’s dominant union. This reality rankles many people. It also colors much of the discussion about the Department, including DWP Reform.

The three main drivers for DWP Reform are (1) contracting issues, (2) labor inflexibility, and (3) political meddling in DWP operations by elected officials. The proposed ballot measure fixes contracting, holds both promise and risk for personnel issues, and may even increase political meddling. (Its council-dictated four year strategic plans, with rates, that would be approved by both the City Council and the Mayor introduces a whole new dimension of opportunities for political interference.)

The issue of the day, however, is the ballot measure provision that allows the city’s Civil Service system to be modified by binding labor contracts. This may only be done with the concurrence of the “salary setting authority”, which is the City Council. (No provision in the proposed DWP Reform package suggests that the council will give this power to the DWP Board.)

The provision that allows modification of Civil Service has come under broad attack by city unions because it represents a change from the status quo. City unions, including IBEW Local 18, use Civil Service provisions in combination with their own labor agreements as a method to further worker interests. These interests include (1) barriers to entry, (2) list-based promotions, and (3) assured lifetime jobs. What suffers is the ability of managers to manage.

The existing Civil Service system makes it exceedingly difficult to hire rapidly to meet a fast-changing need (customer service clerks during the billing fiasco), to bring in workers with current technology skills and managers with proven utility management success, and to promote on the basis of effective job performance, as contrasted with scores on a written Civil Service test. Changing this system could mean more competition on the job and a higher probability of losing one’s job because of poor performance or poor discipline. This is the same issue that complicates managing and improving the workforce of public school teachers and county social workers.

So the municipal labor organizations that oppose change consistently raise the specter of political patronage that ushered in the Civil Service system 100 years ago. (Political patronage is new elected officials firing existing government workers and replacing them with their friends. This is typically what happens with city council staff workers.) They oppose any exempt positions because those will lower the barriers to entry and will increase performance-based hiring and internal competition. The opponents of Civil Service reform conveniently never mention that virtually all the law enforcement agencies in the federal government are exempt from federal civil service, as is the entire Tennessee Valley Authority (which, as a water and power system, is closely aligned with LADWP’s business model). No one has said that these agencies are rife with political patronage.

This writer needs to acknowledge an error in the July 8 article on DWP Reform in which we repeated the assertion of the Mayor’s staff that Los Angeles County has 10 percent of its positions exempt from Civil Service. The reality is that the county has about 10 percent of its staff exempt from the wage and hour rules. The city staff report confused the numbers. This writer continues to believe in the merits of exemptions, and stands by an earlier proposal that DWP be granted 5 percent of its staff as exempt positions.

During the debate over DWP Reform, this writer was struck by the refusal of any elected official except the Mayor to even discuss a ballot measure that would give DWP extra exempt positions, beyond those in the charter that are shared across the entire city. Additional exempt positions are such an obvious answer to the stated problems with DWP workforce renewal that silence on the issue was obviously the result of unseen internal pressure. This writer suspects an uncoordinated but coincident opposition from the Coalition of City Unions, who fear exemptions in general service, and IBEW Local 18, for whom exemptions already granted to DWP would reduce their leverage at the bargaining table.

Which brings up the recent article by Schuyler Colfax in the July 18 edition of the online newspaper City Watch (http://www.citywatchla.com/index.php/the-la-beat/11479-dwp-reform-a-rose-by-any-other-name). The author’s position is that the DWP Reform proposal is an attempt by Brian D’Arcy to take even more control over the management of the DWP labor force. The plausibility of the motive and the widely shared belief that the original reform proposal was crafted by the union chief combine to make a good argument against the ballot measure. Whether you accept that argument or not depends on how much you believe that change is essential at LADWP.

For all of the demonizing of Brian D’Arcy, an argument can be made that no city institution has a stronger interest in the long term health of LADWP than its dominant union. Long after elected officials have moved on, DWP and its labor partners will be facing the challenges of the future based on what they do today.

Try to remember that in the current labor contract, IBEW agreed to eliminate and defer wage increases during a trying financial period for the city. IBEW also agreed to a new, lower pension tier for newly hired workers that will save DWP huge amounts in retirement costs.

The need to replace 40 percent of the DWP workforce over the next few years is real. The need for new craft workers, new engineers with current technology skills, and new managers with proven experience is real. Why wouldn’t the dominant union want to refresh its own roster of members with workers who will do the best possible job for LADWP? If the DWP Reform proposal were crafted by the union, maybe it was because only the union saw how critical it was to DWP’s future health. Do you really think that elected officials have 20 year perspectives?

Yes, there are challenges. Mr. D’Arcy has a personal style that can be arrogant (his debate with the City Controller over auditing the safety and training institutes). He sometimes places union interests ahead of DWP interests (the labor agreement that gives his union the power to approve front line supervisors, which only assures lax supervision and which needs to be eliminated). On the other side, the bargaining instructions for the labor negotiations will be made by elected officials who are recipients of union campaign funds, or may want them in the future (fortunately not including the current Mayor).

For this writer, the need for labor flexibility is so important that it is worth a try. If Civil Service reform were not good for management, why would so many city labor leaders oppose it? In November, the voters will decide yes or no on DWP Reform. If they decide yes, we are saying to both Mr. D’Arcy and the city negotiators: Don’t blow it. We will be watching.

Please send your questions and comments on DWP Reform to dwpmou@EmpowerLA.org. DWP Reform information will be posted regularly at https://empowerla.org/dwpmou. There is additional information at http://dwpreform.lacity.org.

Tony Wilkinson is the Chair of the Neighborhood Council – DWP MOU Oversight Committee. He will be contributing information on the DWP Reform process to the EmpowerLA newsletter each week.