Attorneys for Sonoma County government's largest labor union are set to decide early this week if a vote that appeared to approve a new labor contract for the union will stand.

The vote last week by members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 produced a 52-to-48 percent margin in favor of a 32-month contract that would offset a short-term salary freeze with future-year wage gains.

But the close result has been called into question because four of the union's six county bargaining units voted down the contract. Bargaining units are sub-groups of similarly positioned employees. Past union practice required majority approval by each.

Under current union bylaws, however, majority approval by the entire local carries the vote. In last week's election, approval by two SEIU bargaining units was sufficient to result in an overall majority.

The rule conflict arises out of a 2007 merger between SEIU's previous Local 707 and its current Local 1021. The union represents half of the county's 3,500 employees.

"It wasn't an issue until now because we hadn't had election results quite like these before," said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for Local 1021.

The close result is sign of the discontent many in the union feel about the latest proposal, Gill said.

The decision by union attorneys this week could prompt either an arcane dispute about election rules with the county or an internal feud with disgruntled union members who did not want to see the contract approved.

"There are legal ramifications to either choice," Gill said.

The dispute with the county would happen if union attorneys invalidated the approval. That would prolong a standoff between the two sides and could set in motion union plans for a strike, which members were asked to authorize with their 'no' vote last week.

The dispute could ultimately end up before a state labor board, where both sides have advanced claims of unfair practices by the other.

County officials said last week they would wait to hear what the union decides before discussing any action.

"We're respecting their internal process," said Wendy Macy, the county human resources director.

An internal dispute for SEIU would be handled by the union's executive board.

Last week's vote was the second by the union after 11 months of protracted negotiations. In December, union members overwhelmingly rejected a package that would have extended what is now a five-year freeze on cost-of-living adjustments to wages for an additional three years.

The new proposal offered a shorter, 16-month freeze in exchange for a total bump of 3 percent over the second 16 months of the contract

It also included additional money toward employee health care costs.

Pension cuts and additional cost-sharing by employees in retirement benefits were part of both packages.

The union's previous contract expired in August. The new deal would expire in October 2015. If approved, it could go to the Board of Supervisors this month.

The standoff has been closely watched because any deal with SEIU could determine the outcome of contract talks under way with all other county employee bargaining groups.

County officials say 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, currently at $353 million.

Union officials have criticized the proposed concessions, which come amid a slow rebound in government revenue and after years of job cuts, pay freezes, unpaid furloughs and other reductions intended to close large, recession-era deficits.

SEIU represents rank-and-file employees in most county departments except for public safety divisions. The employees tend to be among the lowest paid in county government.

Union sources declined to identify which bargaining units rejected the new tentative agreement with the county. Tim Tuscany, an SEIU bargaining team member, said the four units included employees on both ends of the union pay scale, which starts around $13 per hour and goes up to $48.

Higher-paid units include nurses and staff supervisors. Lower-paid units include service, technical and clerical workers. Other units include maintenance and social service workers.

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