Four days ago, we criticized the county for not giving the general public enough time to evaluate and comment on a tentative labor pact reached between Sonoma County and its largest union, SEIU Local 1021. The union voted Monday, and the supervisors were expected to vote the following day.
But it's a moot point now as the union soundly rejected the new contract with 87 percent of its members voting no.
So after seven months of negotiations, the parties head back to the bargaining table today. Our hope is that they won't find themselves back at square one.
As always with votes of this kind, it's unclear whether this was a rejection of the particulars of this contract in hope that a slightly better deal is around the corner, or a repudiation of all that the county is hoping to achieve, including its stated objective of a 3 percent overall reduction in employment costs. If it's the latter, the vote could be setting an ominous tone for what's to come.
We're sympathetic that most of those who voted Monday are lower-paid line staff, those least responsible for the spiking and pension abuse that have triggered much of the public outrage. But it remains that the county does not have much room to work with, nor should it pretend that it does.
Although the county recently experienced a windfall that has allowed it to add 54 social service jobs, it still faces crippling long-term debt due to retirement costs. Along with its unfunded pension liability of around $350 million, the county has seen its annual contributions toward retirement costs — including payments on pension obligation bonds — increase 400 percent over 12 years. Meanwhile, the public has grown weary of payroll obligations continuing to eat into resources available for such basic services as pothole repair.
Some provisions in this rejected contract are going to happen on Jan. 1 regardless of whether a new contract is reached. These include anti-spiking provisions and a mandate that employees pay at least half the cost of their pensions. These changes are part of the pension reform plan approved by the Legislature in August and signed by the governor.
As part of the draft contract, Sonoma County employees were going to pick up an additional 2.5 percent of their share of retirement costs. The county currently pays that share.
If there's room for negotiation, however, it may be in the area of health care. Some employees have suggested they are primarily concerned with getting more help in dealing with rising health care costs. Four years ago, the county capped health care contributions at $500 a month.
The county was offering increased assistance through lump sum payments and increased contributions to health spending accounts. If county workers are willing to accept concessions on long-term pension benefits in exchange for greater short-term help with health care costs, the county should be open to the idea.
But what county supervisors can't afford to do is retreat from their commitment to alter the trajectory of long-term retirement costs and find a way to bring them back down to earth.
If labor groups recognize that, there will be time and opportunity to forge new agreements peaceably. If not, this vote could be indicative of an unhappy new year for all.
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