By Odysseus Bostick
As Robert Greene wrote in the 48 Laws of Power, “preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once.” In this, you create the appearance of progress, but in a measured format. String along your audience and they are soon so deep within the pit of your trap that escape is futile.
Whether or not Los Angeles City Hall recognizes it, they are certainly employing this tactic in their hard sell of the “victory” they secured for ratepayers in the Department of Water and Power (DWP) “negotiations.”
The plan appears to be simple: Focus on the good stuff – salary concessions – and put forth a unified front of positivity. Champion yourselves as stalwart defenders of the people, leaders who have stood up to the big bad wolf and proven their mettle in this – the first of many battles that lie ahead. And if anyone talks about the failure to get even token concessions on health care contributions, remind everyone that this is the first step down a long road of a big fight.
The problem is that the centerpiece of this victory is salary concessions. On the surface, this sounds good – especially to a public that is fatigued with a department where 10,210 employees average $100,000 a year in salary.
Framed within that perspective, making them wait three years to get a 2 percent raise is progress and it’s half of what they were going to get before negotiations started. But the reality is that delaying the salary increases does not achieve our most basic need here: controlling the labor costs.
To control those labor costs, you must be able to predict changes from year to year and have an agreed upon set of criteria for how those costs vary, criteria that is logical, fair to all parties, and designed to promote the DWP’s stated mission: providing clean, reliable water and power and excellent customer service in a safe, environmentally responsible and cost-effective manner.
Herein lies the rub. The real labor cost-drivers in the DWP are not salary raises, but loopholes in criteria for awarding overtime – rules that have been abused over the last five years to provide the average employee a 12.5 percent bump in overtime, each year, for five years.
So, what are the criteria for awarding overtime? Understaffing was not part of the negotiation battle and with a labor force 10,000 strong, we must assume that their staffing levels are adequate.
Overtime happens at a public utility. Earthquakes, tsunamis, aging infrastructure, and various natural forces conspire to wreck havoc on infrastructure, and those disasters have a high potential to take lives and devastate economies. The costs in disease and human capital far outweigh the overtime.
Unfortunately, overtime rules at the DWP are not restricted to emergency response. Their overtime rules are fairly arbitrary, hidden within line items of the contract and seemingly focused on protecting the unionization of their labor force more than emergency response. One recently well-publicized code for paying out overtime says that if the department hires outside contractors to perform jobs that permanent employees can do, the permanent employees get overtime – while someone else performs the work.
How bad is the overtime at the DWP? On this, City Hall can’t say with any certainty. They purport to be as surprised as we are whenever the Los Angeles Times publishes some new shocking abuse like the one described above, or the recent discovery that the department paid out 415 years of sick pay since 2010. All that money paid out without even a note from the doctor. But that’s fixed now.
In the light of this, salary concessions are meaningless when discrete rules hidden in the contract permit DWP employees carte blanche to earn overtime. Couple that with the fact that management has proven time and again, that their loyalties remain, first and foremost, to the political arm of their union.
The DWP hasn’t missed a raise in over 20 years. Why won’t they use overtime loopholes in the contract to compensate for a delay in their official raise? They consistently use every other loophole to its maximum benefit.
Until the criteria for paying out overtime is based on providing reliable, safe service to the city, salary concessions are meaningless. They will pay out more in overtime to compensate for the delay in raises.
Considering this, perhaps another one of Greene’s laws of power is more appropriate for City Hall: “use the surrender tactic. Turn your weakness into power.” And don’t cross the DWP.

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