How Collective Bargaining Works at City Hall


Last week, this column defended the right of public employee unions to bargain collectively for their members. I described the bargaining process in simple terms, and indicated how it’s supposed to work. My purpose was to rebut the notion that “to cut the cost of government, public employee unions must be brought down.”

I explained that the bargaining process normally begins when a union leader submits a set of demands for the bargaining unit he/she represents. The demands are received and reviewed by a staff of Labor Relations Specialists employed by the City Administrative Officer (CAO).

It’s important to note that the CAO is the City’s representative in the collective bargaining process. And it should be noted that he has the power and duty to reject any union demand he deems to be excessive, unreasonable or inappropriate. Like every other City employee, the CAO is paid by and accountable to the public.

In Los Angeles, the bargaining process may involve any number of specific demands, with most demands falling into one of three categories: wages, benefits or working conditions. But whatever the demands may be, they’re scrutinized by highly skilled Labor Relations Specialists.

When the City and the union reach agreement on a specific demand, the agreement is submitted — with a recommendation from the CAO — to the Mayor and Council. If all goes well, the parties sign a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), and that specific demand is settled.

Contrary to what some would have us believe, collective bargaining in the public service is not a one-way-street. Unions don’t always get what they want; the public doesn’t routinely wind up with unduly expensive contracts. Indeed, if the bargaining process works as it should, both the taxpaying public and the unions are well-served.

Taxpayers want only well-qualified, hard-working employees on the public payroll. To recruit and retain such employees, government agencies must offer salaries, benefits and working conditions that are in line with what private sector organizations are offering. It’s my opinion that collective bargaining lets public sector agencies compete for the best available employees.

The bad news is that collective bargaining doesn’t always work as it should. Thus, elected officials are frequently accused of using their official position to reward unions for supporting their election. When that happens, the officials prostitute themselves, corrupt the collective bargaining process and betray the public they were elected to serve.

Angelenos should take comfort in the fact that no negotiated agreement is final until it’s been approved by the Council and the Mayor. Moreover, it must be remembered that all 15 Council Members and the Mayor are duty-bound to work on behalf of the people of Los Angeles. Those who, at taxpayer expense, play quid pro quo games with unions must be exposed and recalled.

As I’ve previously indicated, I feel collective bargaining is totally appropriate for City Service. But I know it can be corrupted. Thus, this column (along with a request for constructive ideas) is being sent to the CAO, the Mayor, the Council President and the head of each City union.

Contact Samuel Sperling at

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