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County employees make plans for February strike

By BRETT WILKISON

THE PRESS DEMOCRAT

The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government employees plans to strike next month to protest

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2012 in Santa Rosa. The group is planning another strike in February. (PD FILE, 2012)

what it says is county inaction on a union proposal to save taxpayer money and several other issues it says amount to unfair labor practices.

But the planned Feb. 28 walkout also is geared, indirectly at least, to rachet up pressure on now-protracted contract talks with the county, where the employees face a package of unpopular pay and pension cuts.

A proposed labor agreement with those concessions was overwhelmingly rejected last month by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county’s 3,500 employees.

The workers include frontline staff at most county departments outside of public safety divisions, whose sworn ranks would not be affected by the walkout.

The standoff has developed in the 10th month of negotiations between the county and the union, and after years of job cuts, unpaid furloughs and other reductions aimed to fill large recession-era deficits.

Union members say those budgets were balanced largely on the backs of their workers and that an improved financial forecast for county government should put a halt to the cuts.

“Good faith at the bargaining table means you’re actually talking about solutions, give and take,” said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021. “The last five years, it’s been all about take and not give.”

But with county tax revenue only set for marginal growth this year, and with $353 million in long-term unfunded pension promises plus multimillion-dollar annual backlogs in road upkeep and capital improvements, county officials say current compensation levels need to be cut for all employees, including managers and elected officials. The current plan is to have those higher paid workers take sharper pay and benefit cuts if unions agree to concessions for their members.

“We don’t have enough money,” County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said. “To be sustainable requires us all to tighten our belts.”

Strikes by county workers are rare in recent decades. Union representatives say the planned action, which has been endorsed by affiliated labor groups in the region, is needed to air their grievances, including claims of county interference with union bargaining activity.

“It affects the integrity of (the negotiation) process,” Gill said.

But county officials have questioned whether the protest is fueled more by dispute over the economic concessions under negotiation, including measures to curb rising pension costs and reduce overall compensation levels by 3 percent. If so, the walkout may violate state labor laws, which prohibit such strikes for public employees during the course of contract talks.

Ferguson said that either way, the planned action was “premature.”

“I expect SEIU to comply with the law,” she said. If the strike does occur, she said, managers would be tasked with providing key public services for the day. The county also could go to court to prevent other “essential” employees from striking, she said.

“All of the signs we’ve seen at the table is that they (SEIU) are continuing to negotiate in good faith,” she said.

Union leaders said the planned action did not represent a step away from the bargaining table. The two sides have met once this month and are set to meet again Feb. 6.

But the union’s movement toward a strike has been building since its December contract vote, when 87 percent of the voting members turned down a tentative agreement reached in late November.

The vote also authorized a future strike, and union leaders on Jan. 10 decided to take that step. They announced the Feb. 28 action on their website last week.

“We’re united on this issue,” Andre Bercut, a chief steward with Local 1021, was quoted as saying in an online update to members. “If management won’t come to the table with real solutions, we’ll force their hand and walk out.”

Other SEIU materials distributed locally also have touted the potential impact of a strike on contract talks, with one flier calling labor stoppage a “game changer.”

Still, labor leaders insisted in interviews last week that the planned walkout was based not on differences at the bargaining table but on the union’s complaints of allegedly improper county labor practices.

Their broadest charge is that county officials have refused to address management-to-line staff ratios, a move they contend would cut annual payroll costs by up to $40 million, or about 8 percent of total yearly pay and benefits.

“It has to do with managers doing our bargaining unit work. We can do it for less,” Gill said. “Their refusal to talk about an economic issue has an impact on services to the community.”

Both sides have marshalled statistics in the public debate. Union members focus on the higher overall loss of rank-and-file jobs versus management posts since 2008, with union data showing more than 90 percent of the cuts in rank-and-file positions. Labor leaders say the trend has resulted in a top-heavy workforce with bloated six-figure salaries.

“There’s a general feeling that there’s some real inequality in terms of shared sacrifice,” said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, a coalition of public- and private-sector unions that have backed the strike.

County records show the share of cuts to rank-and-file positions at closer to 80 percent over the same period. Either way, the effect on the line staff-to-management ratio was not glaring, officials said. County data actually shows a slight uptick in the staff-to-management ratio, while union data shows a drop, from 6.1-to-1 to 5.8-to-1. The drop is larger stretching back to 2000, when the ratio of staff to management was 7.4-to-1, according to the union.

SEIU representatives are calling for a ratio closer to 11-to-1, the mandated staffing goal for public agencies in other states, including Oregon and Texas.

County officials say they are studying the issue, with a report due to the Board of Supervisors in March evaluating possible cost savings.

But they also said the subject, which encompasses the entire county workforce and 10 other employee bargaining groups, is not one they are going to negotiate with SEIU or any other group.

“I understand their concern,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has perhaps the strongest ties to organized labor on the current board. “There are departments that do need to improve those ratios . . . At the same time you have to have clear boundaries in terms of what we negotiate. And it has to be in the contract.”

The union is also pressing several other charges related to alleged county interference with activity by SEIU bargaining team members. It has made a formal complaint to state labor officials on one of the interference charges, and Gill said it would do the same with the other claims.

County officials said they were addressing the one formal complaint, which concerned a bargaining team member who said he was threatened by his manager with a job transfer because of his union responsibilities.

Ferguson said the union official was not being transferred and would be allowed to continue with his union duties.

She declined to answer questions pertaining to the remaining union charges, which have not yet been filed with state labor officials.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.





25 Responses to “County employees make plans for February strike”

  1. Jean Anderson says:

    @bear

    Democrats ran both the Senate and House when the economy crashed. Bush was little better than a Democrat in most of his policies, but even his administration warned of the coming housing loan crash 17 times. If you blame Republicans, you need to blame Barney Frank and many other Dems too.

    Stop being so partisan and biased and tell the WHOLE truth.

    Thumb up 7 Thumb down 1

  2. Snarky says:

    If they go on strike, will anyone in the private sector really care?

    Will anyone even notice ? That is what scares government. That the public might someday realize that all the so called “services” are really not needed. Its all fluff. Its all hype.

    Thumb up 5 Thumb down 5

  3. R.B. Fish says:

    Going on a least 3 years. I’ve saying..END PUBLIC SERVICE UNIONS!!! The political and managerial components to run an effective governement to serve the taxpaying American citizens is so corrupt, paricularly with respect to union, union pensions and illegal immigration, it destroying the country from top down to local communities. They don’t care and everyone knows it but there’s really no alternative. There’s no leadership whatever to protect the taxpayer and citizen in Sonoma County.

    Thumb up 9 Thumb down 2

  4. Fed Up Taxpayer says:

    Sonoma County’s pension gap grows $50 million

    And the union answer is to go on strike to prevent any change. You cannot have it both ways either come into line with the income or we we go bankruptcy. If the union has any problem with this go work it out with your bought politicians who got us into this mess.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 7

  5. bear says:

    Dear Welfare Recipients:

    You expect the same level of services, but are unwilling to pay. The definition of greed and welfare.

    The PD should track the decline in government employment. EVERY job is a good job, because employed people spend money and support even those who lack the education and experience to qualify for a government job.

    I’m so sorry you’re a loser, or writing from Mommy’s basement. I’m equally sorry you hate unions, who might improve your circumstances.

    As I’ve suggested before, let’s contract out all government services to the lowest bidder. Already underway. What’s your problem with that?

    Your medical care can come from the emergency room. Your paramedics can be paid minimum wage. Your cops can move to more reasonable places, and you can have minimum wage “security guards.”

    You can pay directly for maintenence of your own roads. Full cost, every year.

    You can close the courts and empty the jail. Convert it to a resort destination? A concrete B&B?

    These issues did not exist before republicans crashed the economy.

    Where is the personal responsibility?

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 24

  6. Fiscal Conservative says:

    Im laughing so hard…Amy Erving presents the SEIU propaganda website named “fix
    sonoma.org” Yea, like SEIU cares about our taxes or infrastructure. The fact is that union
    borrowed a butload of cash to elect progressive socialists and needs the cash infusion to
    keep it from going the way of all the other unions….Twinkyville!

    No Mam! I’m not buying it. I’m also not going to pass $1.5 BILLION in pension debt to
    my children or grandchildren either. It’s time to be responsible for your own pensions like
    the rest of us! We are not interested in paying you 100% of your wage and your inflated
    benefits after your early retirement, regardless of the amount in the tax coffers.

    Sonoma County using real numbers is the most debt ridden County is California. Its debt
    per capita is worse than Greece. Hardworking taxpayers have no sympathy for the
    entitlist attitudes. Going on strike is just another slap in the face for those of us that pay
    your wage and illegally obtained benefits. You work for the taxpaying citizens, not vice
    versa.

    If I were a County Supervisor I would send out an email asking for voluntary staff
    reduction to 24 hours a week starting the day of the proposed strike. Thereafter the
    payroll checks would be reduced and pension benefits removed for the “Part Timers” who
    volunteered.

    Thumb up 20 Thumb down 11

  7. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Jeez, Annie Irving, I could have put my name on your post easily, both of us being on the same page. You are spitting in the wind, my friend. I’ve been saying the same things for YEARS on this post.
    What the public doesn’t understand is that it is the rank and file that provides trained, skilled services to them, NOT THE MANAGEMENT. The more rank and file TRAINED SKILLED county employees laid off the less quality services to the community. This also applies to times of disaster. There’s where county employees really earn their keep and it’s not the managers out there offering health services, food, shelter, and clean up after a flood or an earthquake. It’s SKILLED TRAINED county employees. There are three management positions listed on the county jobs list, today. More and more managers, more and more management position to “handle” those contracting out of county jobs contracts replacing CHEAPER SKILLED TRAINED county employees like at the refuse dump.

    The only department in the county that is doing it right is the Family Support Department. They halved their management, increased their rank and file and are raking in the money. IT MAKES SENSE. Some county departments have 2 rank and file to each manager. This is deplorable and it costs the tax payers big time. The public needs to demand change at the top, not the bottom where SEIU employees are because the rank and file got hit in 2008 with layoffs and cuts while ALL management kept their jobs AND THEIR PERKS. I would recommend a State proposition requiring an 11 rank and file to 1 manager (11:1) then there would be plenty of funds for more county road crew employees to FILL IN THOSE POTHOLES

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  8. Follower says:

    John,
    I don’t “hate unions”.

    Unions are a necessary component to a healthy capitalist system.

    A capitalists only goal is profits and when practiced in it’s purest form, capitalism inevitably leads to abusive employee exploitation.

    Unions are the solution to that problem.

    But Government isn’t a capitalist system.

    Government isn’t concerned with “profits” and therefore has no reason to exploit workers.

    Any “abuse” or “exploitation” a Government worker may experience on the job is purely a mismanagement problem that can be resolved by existing laws and policies making Unions redundant at best.

    As far as Unions “helping to drive up wage and benefits” in the public sector, that’s a very telling statement you make!

    NOW you’re talking about “greed” aren’t you?!!

    So I’m supposed to support Public Sector Unions so I can pay my mechanic twice what he’s worth to fix my car because that’s what the union forces my city to pay?

    Thank you for helping me make my point!

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 12

  9. John Reed says:

    “Unions & Politics 101″

    Note to union-haters: public sector unions help drive up wage and benefit standards in the private sector. That’s a good thing. The problem is not that county workers have such great jobs, it’s that the Wall Street consensus since Reagan has lowered standards in the private sector.

    The strike is the key to the power to stand up to management. That’s why non-union workers keep getting less and less share of the pie, because they have no collective bargaining power. That’s Politics 101.

    Thumb up 12 Thumb down 21

  10. Annie Erving says:

    TAKE ACTION TO FIX SONOMA COUNTY NOW!

    While our community’s roads are deteriorating, parks going UNMAINTAINED, and county workers are laid off, management positions have been PROTECTED.

    In fact, there are LESS than 6 line staff for each manager – and it is commonly accepted that there should be between 9and 11 line staff per manager.

    Please go to the internet – just check out the states of Oregon and Texas – THEY cleaned up their government and provide MORE county and city services AT LESS MONEY. Oregon and Texas SHOWS waste of TAXPAYER money can be accomplished and MORE services provided.

    Sonoma County CAN maintain, preserve and protect PUBLIC SERVICES through smart budget decisions. It CAN reform structural inefficiencies and invest in our ROADS, LIBRARIES, PUBLIC HEALTH, and LAW ENFORCEMENT.

    In these tough economic times, I urge the Board of Supervisors of the County of Sonoma, to invest in OUR community by stopping the structural mismanagement.

    Please visit http://WWW.FIXSONOMA.ORG

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 15

  11. Al B Tross says:

    “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”
    Abraham Lincoln

    I often find it odd that the “party of Lincoln” has abandoned it’s respect for working people, in favor of preference to the management class.

    Thumb up 13 Thumb down 15

  12. Skip D. says:

    There is total bloat in the County government, but its not in the line staff…it’s with the manager to line staff ration of 1 manager to 6 staff. At least the union says they are trying to address this issue.

    Thumb up 19 Thumb down 4

  13. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Sheryl-county jobs are not terrible. Rank and file county employees are not going on strike because of their terrible jobs. They just want to be adequately compensated so they can support their families. Otherwise they wouldn’t be putting 20, 30, and 40 years working for the public and providing service for YOU. That’s why they are always making recommendations to management to improve services to the public AND TO YOU.

    Steveguy-I guess you didn’t read my post below regarding the hidden from the public negotiations with this refuse company on that 30 year contract. The PD does stories on what they want. They print the letters they want. SEIU has been in regular contact with the PD. SEIU has been whistle blowing for years and the PD has printed articles directly from management and the BOS. The strike is desperation because county employees tend to be a polite bunch. The BOS has again decided to balance their budget on the backs of the rank and file. 2008 taught the employees a lesson and they should have gone on strike then. Oh, and how do you think Deis got canned, oops, resigned along with the previous CAO and Amy Cooper’s (Amy is a gem and an asset to this county) previous boss? SEIU was protecting their members.

    Ricardo Sorentino-you may have been right about the county employees pre 2008 but these “secure” jobs are being contracted out, wages have been cut, county workers are dropping their family members off insurance because of the high expense, and high paid managers are being added in place of the rank and file. The brunt of the 2008 budget losses came from the rank and file in layoffs while the management making the decision protected themselves, their income and ALL THEIR PERKS. Out of 570 county jobs lost in the last 10 years, 567 were rank and file and THREE were managers.

    Thumb up 17 Thumb down 14

  14. Follower says:

    @Ricardo
    “The taxpayer, the one footing the bill, should have final say in all negotiations.”

    We do. It’s called “elections” and we keep re-electing these people over & over again.

    Why?

    Because the unions can offer a candidate instant votes and “volunteers” to staff a campaign giving them the loudest voice in the election.

    There is no way to “curtail” the influence a Union has on the people responsible for re-distributing our wealth.

    It’s a rare case of a “black and white” political issue that has NO “gray area”.

    The only solution is to Ban Public Employee Unions completely.

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 16

  15. Rob says:

    If they go on strike, fire their AS- and hire people who want to actually work!

    Thumb up 14 Thumb down 11

  16. Sheryl says:

    There are thousands of people in SoCo who would love your terrible jobs.

    Thumb up 30 Thumb down 15

  17. Jim says:

    I have a friend who works for a multi-billion public company that has many low-wage employees. I’ve done some consulting work for this company. Management gives themselves bonuses, raises at rates 4x the allowable amount for non-executive workers. I’ve seen all the policies. I’ve seen all the documentation. If the employees scheduled a strike it would be basically their resignation. Every single one of them would be replaced. The employees who don’t like the wages leave and find better pay/benefits elsewhere. If they wanted to unionize and walk out, great. Hostess employees forced the hand of management.

    The problem I have with the SEIU is that they are public employees. The bloated management will cave to the union and all will be fixed…EXCEPT the taxpayer will be on the hook for the agreement without ANY say as to the terms.

    A private company can negotiate whatever they want and raise their prices to deal with it. We as consumers can choose to shop elsewhere if the prices are too high. This is the way the market should work. Management has no skin in the game when negotiating with public sector employees. The taxpayer, the one footing the bill, should have final say in all negotiations.

    Thumb up 27 Thumb down 10

  18. Ricardo Sorentino says:

    County workers: I feel for you, but my arms are too short. County employees have far more job security, higher pay, better health care and retirement plans with lower employee costs, numerous paid holidays and three different categories of paid time-off.

    Striking in this economy is a real slap in the face to people that have been unemployed or underemployed for months or even years.

    With people like Lisa Maldonado at SEIU, should we expect anything different? Want, want, want… take, take take… let’s send all the upcoming strikers to a burger joint or a hotel and let them see first hand what real hard work for low part-time wages feels like. Having to work at that kind of pace, how many of these county workers would survive one pay period? After all, they would actually have to come to work and not be able to fall back on sick time, vacation time or comp time.

    Thumb up 24 Thumb down 12

  19. Steveguy says:

    The SEIU has huge ironies and plain stupidity on how they are going about this problem.

    I respect some or most counter folks that actually serve the public well, and I make sure to point out that they are getting a short end at times.

    To me striking would be like biting the hands that feed you. The SEIU should be pro-active in reforming County services instead of protecting and supporting useless people in useless programs.

    Encourage County employees to whistleblow to the Press Democrat. Of course they will need more than one disgruntled source, so you have to back it up. The Management positions are actually the ones that are stealing the honest worker’s benefits and pay through connections and incompetence. Make it easier to get rid of dead weight and get a real public service team going !

    Oops, was that a dream ? Sorry, this forum is supposed to be non-fiction.

    Ohh what a tangled web they wrought, supporting the politicians that reward the 1% over them. Heck, be a ‘consultant’ and grab a couple hundred thousand. Good money when you pay them off.

    I do have a question for any “good” County employee, one that cares, is smart and does the best they can for the public.

    What percent are like you ? What percent are bad ? Any good cop will say that at least 20% of policeman shouldn’t be there. Yes, 1/5.

    Call a Grand Jury on the topic ? Let the Sun shine.

    Thumb up 18 Thumb down 7

  20. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    The strike vote came because since 2008 the unions have been working with the powers that be in the county to save money AND HAVE GOTTEN NOWHERE with the BOS. Union members are fighting, not just for themselves, but services have been cut to the public because of the policy the BOS has of adding management positions and contracting out at the expense of cheaper rank and file employees.

    Rank and file employees know where their allegiance lies and that’s with the public. They are accountable to the public. Contractors ARE NOT, they just want to fill their pockets with profits.

    Thumb up 10 Thumb down 23

  21. Fed Up Taxpayer says:

    This is NOT the way to get the Taxpayer on your side. It is a in your face and up yours attitude! And the People need to wake up and realize that the Union employees do not care about us and only themselves. If they go on Strike bankruptcy is our only option left.

    Thumb up 11 Thumb down 8

  22. bill me says:

    If they go on strike, replace them and watch the unemployment rate drop (for those that want to work rather than strike). At the same time, reduce each department’s management staff by 15%. Then we will have enough to fix our potholes!

    Thumb up 41 Thumb down 24

  23. Follower says:

    County Official:
    “Listen, the tax payers are on to our scam and it’s getting harder to sneak these deals through the system. Maybe if you could go on strike and squeeze these people a little I can get them off my back and we can get back to business as usual. Maybe even just the threat of a strike. You need to throw me a bone here!”

    Union Boss:
    “Sounds good, I’ll get right on it!”

    Thumb up 29 Thumb down 25

  24. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Union members from all unions, bring your families, come out and join SEIU families on their march for fairness. County workers took the brunt of budget saving layoffs and cuts in 2008 while ALL the managers kept their jobs AND THEIR RAISE, county paid deferred compensation, ALL THEIR PENSIONS BOOSTING PERKS and the public lost services because of it. The rank and file wants fairness. The rank and file are not the ones jacking up pension costs and retiring at incomes higher than what they made while working.

    SEIU has been fighting the rank and file to management ratio since 2008 and yet the county keeps adding new management positions to “manage” contracting out. SEIU has been advocating a more reasonable ratio of managers to rank and file of 11:1 but the BOS aren’t listening. The county has laid off rank and file employees and contracted out their jobs. Contracting ALWAYS COSTS THE PUBLIC MORE FOR LESS. Contracting out takes away the accountability that you get when county employees are doing their jobs. Case in point, the county is negotiating a 30 YEAR BILLION DOLLAR CONTRACT at the refuse dump with an Arizona company that has lost many law suits and has environmental infractions against it. THIRTY YEARS! Those county SKILLED, TRAINED, COUNTY EMPLOYEES ANSWERABLE TO THE PUBLIC, have already been laid off. With the recycling and the methane production (the county runs its buses on the methane) it will be very lucrative for this company. The PD will not do an article and the PUBLIC HAS A RIGHT TO INPUT AND BE INFORMED.

    County rank and file workers are just trying to support their families just like every other middleclass worker in Sonoma County. They aren’t asking for much, just your support. They support you, the public, every time they arrive to work. The meeters and greeters, THE ONES THAT RESPOND IN DISASTERS, the ones that know they WORK FOR YOU.

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  25. GAJ says:

    While I sympathize with some of SEIU’s points, (ie. too many managers, they have shouldered the brunt of minimal “reform” while Public Safety eats up an ever bigger piece of the budget), striking is not the way to get further support.

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