Only in Los Angeles would a liberal Democrat who has campaigned time and again with strong labor support stand accused of being this city's version of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican who earned labor's undying enmity for ending collective bargaining rights in his state. And yet that's precisely the latest wrinkle in the Los Angeles mayor's race.
As The Times reported Wednesday, Controller Wendy Greuel made her pitch for labor support in part by suggesting that her opponent in the May 21 runoff election, Councilman Eric Garcetti, violated collective bargaining rules when he supported a change in retirement benefits for city employees last year. Under that change, new civilian hires face higher retirement ages and slightly reduced pension benefits. Garcetti and other supporters of the new rules argued that they were necessary to protect the city's precarious finances, and that they did not require negotiations with organized labor because they did not affect existing employees.
There's plenty of room to debate the legality of the new rules and the city's approach to pensions and retiree healthcare. Some, including former Mayor Richard Riordan, have argued that Los Angeles' generous employee benefits are rapidly eroding its financial health. Soon, those critics argue, the city could be spending so much on retirees that it will be forced to cut essential services to pay for them. Others say that Riordan and other critics have overstated the problem and that the city's difficulties, though real, can be addressed with reforms such as those Garcetti and others have approved.
Those differences are important to discuss as the campaign unfolds, and the solutions to the pension and healthcare issues will largely define the city's well-being in the years to come. As a result, it's right for Greuel and Garcetti and the various interests on this issue to define their positions and argue their cases.
What's not right is to pretend that this is an assault on labor's right to organize or bargain. No one is seriously challenging those rights in this debate, nor should they. Labor will be asked to compromise, and it should take those requests seriously, for its members stand to lose along with everyone else if pension obligations break the city's budget. But neither Garcetti nor any other participant in this conversation is proposing to strip labor of its rights. Whatever else one thinks of Eric Garcetti, he's no Scott Walker.