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