Labor talks between Sonoma County, SEIU heading toward impasse
Labor negotiations between Sonoma County and its largest union - representing more than half of the county’s 4,100 public employees - are nearing a stalemate that could drag out contract talks for months.
The county has initiated impasse proceedings with the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which staged a three-day strike in November that disrupted some county services. The county is set to declare formal impasse by the end of the week, said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.
“We are not able to reach an agreement on the major economic drivers in the package,” Ferguson said in an interview this week, referring to cost-of-living increases and health care benefits. “The union does not agree with what we have on the table ... but I think mediation will help us narrow how far apart we are.”
The decision to declare an impasse is exacerbating tensions with SEIU, which represents 2,400 rank-and-file employees. Union representatives characterized the action as hasty, saying they are still willing to work on hammering out a compromise.
“We understand labor negotiations got started on a bad foot, but we still feel like we can be productive talking face-to-face,” said Michael Allen, the union’s top negotiator. “We feel that we are getting closer.”
There have been impasse proceedings initiated with other unions more recently, but the last time the county declared impasse with the SEIU was in 2008, according to members of the county’s bargaining team.
County and union negotiating teams have met more than 30 times since deliberations began June 30, and both sides were expected to meet at the bargaining table again Thursday. At its core, the dispute is about wages that union officials argue have not kept pace with the high cost of living in Sonoma County, as well as the cost of medical coverage. County officials say, however, that it must balance increases in employee compensation with other financial demands.
“I believe we have great folks who work for the county who want the same things as the Board (of Supervisors) does - running a really fiscally responsible organization,” Ferguson said. “We feel we’ve addressed concerns from members ... they’ve shown us their paychecks, and we saw that many people are earning less today than what they did in 2007 as a result of the high cost of health care, so that’s what we focused on.”
Unionized employees in November staged a three-day strike, protesting what members called a stingy contract offer from the county, bad faith negotiating at the bargaining table and other issues union officials said amounted to unfair labor practices. Since then, the county has nearly doubled the offer it made in mid-November, while union officials remain steadfast in their demands to restore pay and benefits cut during the recession, as well as institute cost-of-living increases amid the county’s healthier financial outlook.
The county has offered a 9.5 percent increase in total compensation over 32 months, including a 6 percent pay bump. Initially, the offer was a 4 percent increase in total compensation over 21 months. The county also has introduced two additional health care plans - one with Sutter Health and one with Western Health Advantage - that could lower insurance premiums for county employees. An additional offer on the table would reduce employee health care costs for the county’s current Kaiser Permanente HMO plan. Under that proposal, the county would pick up more of the cost, contributing a set dollar amount per month. Employees with two people in their plan would pay $348 per month, down from $837 today. Families would contribute $492 per month, down from $1,392 today.
Representatives for the union, however, are pushing for a set percentage per month, in part to help absorb spikes in insurance premiums driven by market factors. The union is asking for the county to pick up 85 percent of employee costs, with union members paying the remainder.
“The high health care costs is one of the biggest things we want to fix,” said Omar Medina, a county eligibility worker and activist with the North Bay Organizing Project. “Our philosophy is looking for restoration of benefits that were cut during the recession ... health care is part of that. Our main point is the cost of living keeps going up and the county isn’t moving.”
The union is asking for an 11 percent increase in total compensation - including pay and benefits - over 24 months. It would include a 7 percent pay bump.
“We are still very frustrated with the county,” Medina said. “We feel like they are not serious about giving us a fair contract.”
Allen and other union officials criticized the county’s negotiating tactics, alleging its bargaining team has not been forthcoming with the county’s finances.
“Months into our negotiations, all of the sudden they found $13.5 million for roads,” Allen said. “We all want our roads to be fixed, but the county has been disingenuous about (disclosing) the money they have. The county’s economy has improved dramatically, and we’re asking them to prioritize workers who sacrificed during the recession.”
Ferguson dismissed the allegations.
“We’ve opened up our books for them,” she said.
County officials said they can declare impasse without union agreement. The next steps could include meeting with an outside mediator, fact-finding and ultimately, a final decision by the Board of Supervisors.
Should the two sides not reach agreement, supervisors could impose terms and conditions for up to one year. They must also sign off on any contract agreement once ratified by the union, officials said.
“I haven’t lost my optimism,” Ferguson said. “I believe this board is really supportive of finding a package that meets the county’s needs and meets the needs of our lowest-paid employees.”
You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @ahartreports.