Union upholds Sonoma County workers' contract OK

Sonoma County government's largest labor union has upheld its close vote approving a tentative contract, a step that likely marks the end of a tense tug-of-war with the county that began almost a year ago.

The election result had been in doubt since union voting ended Feb. 26 because of a conflict in internal union rules.

With that resolved, the agreement is expected to be approved by the Board of Supervisors at its March 19 meeting. It would represent the first significant progress in the county's bid to curb its rising pension costs and hold down salary expenses for represented employees.

In exchange for the concessions, which include the elimination of pay and perks that can boost pensions, greater cost-sharing by employees in retirement benefits and a short-term salary freeze, workers are set to receive future-year wage gains and additional help with health care expenses.

The deal with Service Employees International Union Local 1021 would settle what had been an escalating standoff with the county, including plans for a strike had the agreement not been ratified.

It also could affect ongoing contract talks with the county's 10 other unions and bargaining groups.

Fiscal watchdogs and pension overhaul advocates have criticized the negotiations, saying quicker and deeper cuts are needed to cover mounting service backlogs, including road upkeep, and pay for long-term pension liabilities, now at $353 million.

But county officials have defended the deal, saying the changes to pensions alone could save the county more than $83 million over the next decade, accounting for 58 percent of the savings the county says are needed to make the system sustainable.

"It had to change and it has changed and we're on our way to that overall goal," said David Rabbitt, chairman of the Board of Supervisors.

SEIU officials were unavailable to comment Monday.

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