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Sonoma County says workers who strike may be punished


Sonoma County government administrators have told members of the county’s largest labor union that they could be disciplined if they participate in a planned Feb. 28 strike and the walkout later is found to be unlawful by a state labor board.

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2012 in Santa Rosa. (PD FILE, 2012)

SEIU 1021 union members with the County of Sonoma rally in front of the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors in 2012 in Santa Rosa. (PD FILE, 2012)

Measures would start with docked pay and could include stiffer sanctions — from verbal warning to termination — for employees violating county conduct rules during the strike, officials said Monday in an interview.

The notice to employees, which came in a written memo last week, has drawn fire from union officials, who accused county leaders of trying to strong-arm employees into not participating in the strike. They say the planned walkout, to draw attention to a number of recent unfair labor practice complaints they have filed against the county, is a legal right of their members.

“I think they’re trying to intimidate people,” said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of 3,500 county workers.

County officials, however, said they were simply seeking to respond to employees after administrators last month publicly questioned whether the strike was fueled more by differences at the bargaining table than labor practices.

State laws prohibit such “economic” strikes for public employees during the course of negotiations. In that case, participating workers could be subject to discipline, county officials said in the notice last week.

“Our intent is to treat our employees fairly and respect labor rules,” said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson. “We’d received a number of questions and we wanted to give people as much information as possible.”

The question of the strike’s legality would rest with the state Public Employment Relations Board, where such decisions can take several months, the county notice said. The agency would only take up the issue if the county made a formal complaint, a move officials said they were contemplating.

The county also is preparing a list of employees it deems “essential” and who it would seek to prohibit from striking. Generally, SEIU-represented workers include rank-and-file staff at most county departments outside of public safety divisions, whose sworn ranks would not be affected by the walkout.

The squabble marks an escalating series of quarrels between the two sides, which are now in the 11th month of contract talks. SEIU members strongly rejected in December a package of unpopular pay and pension cuts designed to trim 3 percent of total compensation.

The standoff is being closely watched because any deal or impasse with the union could determine the tone and terms of contract talks now under way with most other county employee bargaining groups. Their agreement on concessions is needed before pay and pension cuts for managers, elected officials and other unrepresented workers take effect.

County officials say the cuts are needed to free up money for government services and public infrastructure, including road repairs, and to pay off long-term liabilities to the county pension system, now at $353 million, or roughly equal to annual pay and benefit costs for Sonoma County government.

Under a more aggressive schedule to pay off the infrastructure backlog and benefit promises, the county would face an annual shortfall of up to $36 million, even with the pay and pension cuts, county budget analysts said last week.

“This particular list of unmet needs here is not exhaustive by any means,” said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has strong ties to organized labor. “I think it is actually much higher.”

But union officials have criticized the proposed concessions, which come amid a slow rebound in government revenue and after years of job cuts, unpaid furloughs and other reductions aimed to fill large recession-era deficits.

SEIU members, who are among the lowest-paid county workers, shouted their disapproval outside the county administrative center during the Board of Supervisors meeting last week.

“They want to spend more of our money,” said Tim Tuscany, a psychiatric nurse and SEIU representative. “They have a balanced budget. But they want more from you guys. More, more, more.”

Core issues continue to be a proposed shift of salary to cover pension premiums and the continuation of a now five-year freeze on cost-of-living pay adjustments for employees.

The two sides are set to meet today on those issues. But no more negotiating dates are set with SEIU, and Gill said he doubted any more talks would be held before the strike.

The union has filed three unfair labor practice complaints with state officials, alleging interference with union activity or harassment of union members. Gill said Tuesday he planned to file a fourth complaint over the county strike memo.

County officials said they had resolved one of the complaints and at least partly addressed one of the others.

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

10 Responses to “Sonoma County says workers who strike may be punished”

  1. Reality Checkl says:

    Is it now an unfair labor practice to remind county employees they are subject to the laws of California regarding strikes? I guess so. With that attitude, is it a wonder that a growing number of people have a negative view of public employees?

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  2. Happy County Employee says:

    If the county addresses and remedies the unfair labor practices of intimidating and threatening employees then there will be no need for a strike. The county can avoid the loss of production time and the disruption of service to the public by playing fair and legal. Really simple.

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  3. Cotati Station Neighbor says:

    Looks like the strike may be moot. Tentative agreement reached last night, after a 17-hour marathon session. The agreement features maintenance of low-deductible health plan, conversion of 17 hours of floating holidays to vacation, at least $1915.00 in one time money for each worker, three percent Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) over the term of the contract, and health care relief for families. More at seiu1021.org

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  4. Nora Gonzales says:

    Since the public unions control the labor relations board and the bored of stupidvisors, what could go wrong?

    This is much to do about nothing. The only suckers left standing at end of the day are the poor suckers [taxpayers} who will pick up the tab for the wage and benefit increases SEIU rings out of the county.

    This is all smoke and flying feathers to make the county BOS look like they really care. They don’t and they won’t stop wage, pension and benefit increases in the final little scene.

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  5. Snarky says:

    “Mockingbird” stated to the Press Demo:

    “It is unconscionable your lack of support for county workers and their families..”

    Since when is a media outlet supposed to take sides, Mockingbird?

    By the way,,,,,

    The workers are the subject. Their families are nothing to do with anything involving the public. The workers are responsible for their families and nobody else.

    Not even the Press Democrat!

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  6. Reality Check says:

    The idea that there is a an ideal and fixed manager-employee ratio is too silly to take seriously. It could only gain traction in government, where productivity and common sense don’t count for much. The number of employees appropriate per manager depends on many factors and is always subject to change.

    As to the country trying to scare union employees into not striking, probably. But they are also making a larger point, you are not exempt from the law. If your strike violates the law, expect to pay a price. I know, I know, this a shocking idea, that public employees should be subject to the law.

    Now, likely, county officials really don’t mean it. They are just barking a little. The BOS is about is likely to punish an illegal strike as Congress is to balance the budget.

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  7. Follower says:

    When are we going to put an end to this insanity?!!
    Even great Presidents make mistakes and allowing Government Employees to Unionize was JFK’s whopper!

    Sure, it has served his party well over the years. It’s a great way to buy votes with MY tax dollars but enough is enough!

    And before you Repubots start chastising those evil Dems, lets not forget about Crawford’s Village Idiot buying FLORIDA with Medicare Part D!

    While you’re all blindly defending your favorite party, they’re ALL SCREWING US!

    “Watch the birdie” lemmings!

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  8. Just the Facts Please says:

    If someone has facts to support the following opinion that is being recited everywhere please provide those facts.

    “Out of the 570 employees losing their jobs in the last 10 years ONLY 3 (THREE) WERE MANAGERS, the rest workers.”

    I do not think the facts will support that 570 employees lost their jobs. The majority of jobs eliminated were vacant.

    I do not think the facts will support that the ratio of 1 employee to every 57 managers for those who did lose their jobs. If it does it is only because of the seniority system that would allow managers in many cases to bump back to a previously held position, resulting in a less senior employee actually being laid off.

    Again. Your opinions are interesting, but are not fact. Saying it is so does not make it so. Even if you say it very loudly and frequently.

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  9. Grapevines says:

    If you believe that the BOS is looking out for anyone but themselves, then I have a bridge to sell you. Their all about finding supervisory jobs for both their dysfunctional family members and people who they owe political favors to.

    And if you doubt this just look at the package Valerie Brown set us up with on the SMART board. The GM gets $750 A DAY and the CFO is pulling in $500 A DAY. $1,250 a day on a train that isn’t running, and isn’t pulling in any fares.

    Hope your enjoying the screwing your getting Sonoma County, you keep voting in the same people to keep mismanaging your tax dollars.

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  10. MOCKINGBIRD says:

    Thanks PD for again putting an inflammatory label on an article to help the county scare its worker bees. It is unconscionable your lack of support for county workers and their families. Your support for the too many high paid managers and BOS is not in the public’s best interests. The BOS salaries are based (they voted on this themselves and the current board seems just fine with it) on the judges salaries with raises every year and not on an average of like counties’ BOS salaries like the rest of the employees’ salaries are based. Management salaries aren’t based on the same averaged counties as the rank and file salaries are. How nice for them along with all the pensionable perks they get too. I’m a taxpayer, I need county services, and am a middleclass resident of this county and I AM APPALLED.

    The county BOS are very busy contracting out good county jobs to disreputable companies (like the backdoor negotiations with Republic on managing the refuse dump that the PD SHOULD BE informing the public about and giving them a say) and laying off employees. The managers have protected themselves from layoffs and the BOS keeps adding more managers every month to “manage” these contracts. Out of the 570 employees losing their jobs in the last 10 years ONLY 3 (THREE) WERE MANAGERS, the rest workers. Then the PD accepts, hook line and sinker, whatever the county says about the employees so they can scare all the employees who are only striking FOR FAIRNESS, equity, and to be able to support their families.

    The county employees work for the public. They deserve NOT TO have the BOS balance its budget on the backs of the employees least paid with the fewest benefits. Besides, unions have made many suggestions coming from those knowledgeable worker bees to save public money, the biggest one being the rank and file to management ratio of 5.73 to 1 (5.73:1). In the year 2000 the rank and file to management was 7.4:1. Eliminating the excess management positions to that level again would save the county about $16M that could be put to the road crew and repairing roads or to more rank and file employees for quicker and better services that the public (YOU) depend on.

    If we had a law, like Texas and Oregon passed, our BOS would be aiming for an 11:1 manager to rank and file ratio. I believe that would save the county about $44M PER YEAR. Imagine what the county could do with that! CERTAINLY MAINTAIN THE ROADS!

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