San Diego County workers deserve better

Avery Wear, a member of SEIU Local 221, reports that a proposed contract agreement for San Diego County workers leaves a lot to be desired.

San Diego County workers protest for dignity on the job (SEIU Local 221 | Facebook)San Diego County workers protest for dignity on the job (SEIU Local 221 | Facebook)

SAN DIEGO County workers arrived at their union hall at 9 a.m. on September 9 to make preparations for a planned two-day strike on September 12 and 13 But upon their arrival, they discovered that the union's bargaining team and county negotiators had reached an agreement, and that the strike had been cancelled.

Workers, who are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 221, now face the choice of whether to accept or reject the deal. The vote will be held this week.

In 2013, the county board came to the negotiating table with a contract offer that included no raises. This was successfully pushed back after a surprising level of union mobilization. This year, the county started off bargaining with 3 percent and 2 percent raises on the table, implicitly recognizing the power of SEIU Local 221 the last time around.

Unfortunately, despite the better starting position for negotiations, the county has refused to bargain in good faith. County officials stuck to their inadequate original offer with threats to "take it or leave it," and subsequent bargaining rounds only produced alternatives that failed to improve on it.

County officials also demanded a new "Tier D" pension--with a lower reimbursement rate than Tiers A through C--for all new hires, and they refused to consider any of the hundreds of changes to contract language or proposals for "equity" increases for specific job titles in order to close the gap between lower pay for San Diego County workers compared to county workers elsewhere in California.

Only the threat of the first strike since 1994 finally budged the county. If the union's mobilization efforts in 2013 increased the initial money on the table in 2017, our strike preparations this year moved them further still.

But members now face a difficult decision. The agreement, which the Negotiating Committee has recommended that members ratify, falls far short of our just demands and will have the effect of introducing new divisions within the union through its Tier D pension plan.

At the same time, the leadership argues that the union's strike preparations showed some weakness, and that county officials would have dug in permanently behind the current offer.

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THE PROPOSED agreement preserves the wage increases proposed all along by the county, but uses the technicality of "equity" increases to give substantially more to some groups.

Nurses, for example, would get a 7 percent increase in the first year of the contract, while clerical workers would get 4 percent. But others, like Protective Service, would get the original 3 percent. All workers would get at least 13 percent more over the life of the five-year deal. Increases are not retroactive to the June 22 contract expiration. Annual bonuses are also included.

On the positive side, the union won increased reimbursement for transportation and several improvements in contact language, including strengthened overtime rules, which represents a clear improvement despite the county's earlier intransigence.

But the union conceded on the pension issue. Under the proposed agreement, all new hires will receive Tier D pension benefits, deepening a creeping generational divide that has the potential to weaken solidarity within our union. In the auto industry, carmakers have exploited such divisions between existing workers and new hires over the course of many years to devastating effect for labor contracts in the auto sector.

County negotiators also remained completely inflexible on our social justice demands for restorative justice and funding legal defense for immigrants.

In a county with swollen artificial budget surpluses that starve the community and its workers of badly needed funds, the proposed agreement adds $30 million to the annual budget. But the county adds about $100 million annually to its surplus, which now approaches $2 billion.

Accepting this deal means accepting real but unequal improvements within the general context of grotesquely unnecessary austerity.

Union leaders hope for a better future when long-entrenched Republican county supervisors term out of office before the next contract is negotiated. But centrist Democrats--of the type who may or may not replace them--don't offer anything approaching an inspiring alternative to these Republicans. For example, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, a Democrat, has imposed the same harsh austerity measures on city workers as Republicans.

No one can predict with certainty what San Diego County will do if workers vote down the deal. We have seen them make concessions when faced with determined resistance. But moving back in the direction of a strike carries no guarantee of victory--far from it.

Workers who believe we must do better should consider two interrelated steps--first, vote to reject the agreement, which would show our willingness to fight despite the risks, and second, push for Local 221 to create a much-needed strike fund, regardless of the results of contract ratification vote.