Workers demand improved labor practices as well as raises reflecting the cost of living in Bay Area

County employees at the Morgan Hill Library Oct. 19 conducted “rolling strikes” as part of their contract negotiations. – Photo by Marty Cheek

By Marty Cheek

South Valley residents were surprised to discover the Morgan Hill and Gilroy libraries closed Saturday Oct. 19 due to a labor union strike. Employees from both libraries held signs and chanted slogans for fair wages while picketing in front of  the Morgan Hill Library.

For the past six months, Santa Clara County administrators led by CEO Jeff Smith and leaders with the Service Employees International Union Local 521 have been stalled in contract negotiations. Points of contention include what percentage of raises employees will receive as well as fair treatment of workers. The failure led to a series of “rolling strikes” and picketing throughout the month of October at selected county sites including hospitals, courthouses and all libraries in the county.

“We are on strike against Santa Clara County for its unfair labor practices of restructuring the way work is done in the Department of Family and Children’s Service without bargaining with the employees who do the work,” the union said in a statement explaining the reason for the first county employee strike in four decades. “The county is actively working to shut down the San Jose Family Resource Center and making many other changes that will hurt our community and the front-line employees who have dedicated their lives to public service.”

Supervisor Mike Wasserman, who represents the South Valley region, sympathizes with the employees and said the county proposed during the negotiations a “significant wage increase” to keep employees competitive with similar occupations in the area. An Oct. 15 deal offers workers over a 5-year period of a 3 percent general wage increase per year. That compounds to about 16 percent over five years and is calculated to cost the county about $625 million over that period.

The union originally asked for a three-year contract with a 6 percent raise the first year and 5 percent raises over the next two years. It lowered the final two years to 4 percent.

“The county is responsible for taxpayer dollars, and so while we certainly want to provide competitive wages for our employees, I think our current offer on the table does a good job in doing that,” Wasserman said. “It’s all up to us that we protect the taxpayer dollars as well as the critical services that we’re expected to provide.”

Morgan Hill Library assistant Orion Dam rides a scooter during the strike. – Photo by Marty Cheek

The county is also offering special wage increases for many positions where employees are underpaid based on a study it conducted. Employees in these positions will get raises that go beyond the 3 percent applied to all workers, Wasserman said.

“You have the across the board 3 percent increase and then you have what we call the realignment increases,” he said. “And they range from about 3 percent to 15 percent for a whole lot of people who hold different jobs in the county.”

While picketing at the Morgan Hill Library during the day-long strike, Stephanie Vela, an eligibility worker in South County, said it’s difficult for many service employees to live in one of the most expensive regions of the world on their current salaries or the county’s proposed salary raises.

“All of us deserve the right to live in this area without having to commute two hours one way and two hours the other way,” she said. “We haven’t had a cost of living raise in several years. With the last contract, we got screwed. So, people now are more aware of what’s going on and people are standing up because we can’t live in this valley.”

But the strikes are about more than salaries, she emphasized. Other issues the union is negotiating with the county administration include unfair labor practices such as favoritism shown in hiring and as many as 1,500 unfilled vacancies that put stress on staff.

“We’re taking on double the work than what we should be. That’s not right,” Vela said. “We have people with leaves of absence due to stress, hurt arms, back, whatever the case might be.”

Tammy Kearin, a library clerk at the Morgan Hill Library, said increasing the wage raises to 4 percent will mean better service for people who use the county’s services because workers will be happier and more productive.

“We’re striking about unfair business practices and part of that is not being able to give the services we wish to to our community and also making sure all of our workers are supported in the right way,” she said. “It’s about equity and making sure all of our members are supported in the jobs they do and with a living wage.”

The county has about 22,000 employees. The SEIU represents about 12,000 of the service workers, which includes sheriff department, clerical, parks and recreation, and roads. Many workers are forced to fill in the tasks of vacancies in various job positions.

Photo by Marty Cheek

“We put community first, but we believe the county can do better for our communities,” Kearin said. “Fifteen hundred vacancies is not doing better for our communities. That puts extra stress on the workers. Many of our workers have mandatory overtime, they’re not getting their mandated rest breaks. We want to support each other. It’s not just about the big details of the contract, it’s the small details that make us better workers for our community.”

The contract offered Oct. 15 was the “best and last offer” from the county, Wasserman said. From Oct. 22 to Nov. 4, the SEIU members are taking a vote on whether or not to accept it. If it’s voted down, then the county would declare an impasse and bring in an independent third-party mediator to help through a non-binding arbitration to get the situation resolved.

Wasserman said he realizes Silicon Valley’s high housing costs and other expenses make it a challenge for many employees to raise families.

“I understand and appreciate and recognize how difficult it is to live in Santa Clara County. The cost of living is very high,” he said. “I want to give a shout out to our county employees. All 22,000 are truly devoted public servants and they provide critical services.”

Marty Cheek