Squeezing San Diego county workers

Avery Wear, a member of SEIU Local 221 in San Diego, describes preparations for a possible strike--and what's at stake for county workers.

County workers in San Diego prepare for a strike (SEIU Local 221 | Facebook)County workers in San Diego prepare for a strike (SEIU Local 221 | Facebook)

Update: After this article was published, at an emergency Contract Action Team meeting on August 29, 250 county workers voted to hold a two-day strike on September 12-13. Workers will disrupt Board of Supervisors meetings scheduled for those days. Union leaders stated that they assumed workers would agree to no more than a one-day strike, but were surprised when a range of positions, including for an open-ended strike, were proposed. When presented with a choice between a one- or two-day strike, members unanimously chose two days, chanting, "Shut them down!" While a two-day strike is a step forward, much more pressure would come from an indefinite walk-out, which may yet prove necessary.

A STRIKE may be looming for some 12,000 employees of San Diego County, who have been working without a contract since June 22.

Sticking points between the county and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 221 include wages, health care flexible spending accounts and the county's insistence on creating a new "Tier D" inferior pension plan for all future workers.

The union's proposals incorporate demands worked out with community partner agencies for increased spending on immigrant legal assistance, restorative justice programs, food stamps promotion through CalFresh and more.

While the relationship with community partners has sparked controversy among a small minority of Local 221 members, it paid dividends for the union when many partner agencies vocally supported pay and benefits increases for workers at the county's budget hearing.

Members of the union’s negotiating committee members say months of bargaining have yielded only inflexible "take it or leave it" proposals from the county. Worse, successive offers failed to improve on previous ones and included arbitrary deadlines for acceptance, with the threat that the offers would go away after deadlines had passed.

Workers responded by filing unfair labor practice (ULP) charges and taking an August vote to authorize strike action based on the ULP allegations. A strike to protest ULPs does not require a legal "impasse" declaration or cooling-off period. With some 3,000 union members voting--a relatively high member turnout--90 percent approved strike authorization.

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WITH A high cost of living, but lower pay than other metropolitan counties in the state, San Diego has accumulated a $2 billion budget surplus. That's over 40 percent of the annual operating budget, as against 15 percent recommended by budget experts and actually held by other large counties.

Thus, the County Board of Supervisors is hoarding taxpayer funds, while over 300,000 San Diego families cannot meet basic needs without assistance.

That poverty is connected to both low worker pay and low utilization of CalFresh, MediCal and other programs that the county intentionally fails to promote and publicize at levels that are standard elsewhere.

After the strike authorization results were announced, the county agreed to mediated bargaining, raising hopes that officials respected the possibility of union action. But on August 22—after what Tracey Carter, the county chapter president of SEIU 221, described as "three intense days"—the county withdrew from mediation.

Though the union negotiating committee has authorization to call members out on strike at any time, it has promised to give the county 10 days' notice before any strike. An "emergency" contract action team meeting for workers has been called for August 29.

San Diego County workers last struck in 1994--a one-day strike that won a three-year contract with raises of 8 percent, 5 percent and 5 percent. Thus, the county may wager that workers have lost the courage and organization to strike effectively.

In a fairly conservative military county, under a Trump presidency and with Supreme Court considering a potentially disastrous decision in the Janus v. AFSCME case--which could devastate public-sector unions by limiting their power to collect dues--county officials apparently see no reason to break with their longstanding business-friendly miserliness.

The stakes are high for county workers. An inadequate deal for members in an already low-membership union, with the Janus decision potentially limiting dues collection, could precipitate a downward spiral for the local.

Yet a large turnout of 1,000 Local 221 members at the county's budget hearing and 400 at the union's "Strike School," in addition to the strike vote numbers, demonstrate that we are riding a wave of worker anger.

In a strike, the community partners could help us win broad public sympathy at a time of popular backlash against income inequality. No strike can ever guarantee victory, but it would be more dangerous still--for ourselves, our families and for future generations of county workers--to back down and accept anything less than the kind of contract Local 221 members and our community need.