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.

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.