Sonoma County, labor leaders await outcome of contract vote

The outcome of a standoff between Sonoma County's government and its largest union could be decided today in a contract vote by workers.

The closely watched decision by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 will hinge on pay provisions, as well as a general discontent among union workers about the size and compensation of the county's management ranks.

Both sides took a step back from confrontation Monday when the union said it would not stage a strike planned for Thursday. The county, in turn, withdrew a request to state labor officials to prevent a walkout.

Approval of the tentative agreement could defuse what has been an escalating legal fight between the union and the county. Rejection, however, would set the stage for an even more protracted battle, including a likely strike. The union represents about half of the county's 3,500 employees, and any deal it reaches could determine contract terms for the rest of the county's union workers.

Agreement by a majority of unionized employees also is needed before tentative pay and pension cuts for managers, elected officials and other non-union workers go into effect.

An SEIU leader said he expected the vote to be close for or against. Members started casting ballots last week and are set to finish by 3 p.m. today, with results expected by about 9 p.m.

"I think the membership is feeling a lot of angst," said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021.

The union in December overwhelmingly rejected a previous proposal that included an unpopular wage freeze and pension concessions. The union since planned for the strike while the county took its steps to block it.

Changes at the bargaining table led to the latest tentative deal. While pension cuts remain, the proposed pay freeze, now in place since 2008 on cost-of-living adjustments, would only continue for 16 months.

After that, for the remaining 16 months of the contract, starting in mid-2014, the county would provide a cost-of-living wage boost of 1 percent in the first year and an additional bump of 2 percent in mid-2015.

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