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Sonoma County, labor leaders await outcome of contract vote

Published: Monday, February 25, 2013 at 6:59 p.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, February 26, 2013 at 10:36 a.m.

The outcome of a standoff between Sonoma County's government and its largest union could be decided today in a contract vote by workers.

The closely watched decision by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021 will hinge on pay provisions, as well as a general discontent among union workers about the size and compensation of the county's management ranks.

Both sides took a step back from confrontation Monday when the union said it would not stage a strike planned for Thursday. The county, in turn, withdrew a request to state labor officials to prevent a walkout.

Approval of the tentative agreement could defuse what has been an escalating legal fight between the union and the county. Rejection, however, would set the stage for an even more protracted battle, including a likely strike. The union represents about half of the county's 3,500 employees, and any deal it reaches could determine contract terms for the rest of the county's union workers.

Agreement by a majority of unionized employees also is needed before tentative pay and pension cuts for managers, elected officials and other non-union workers go into effect.

An SEIU leader said he expected the vote to be close for or against. Members started casting ballots last week and are set to finish by 3 p.m. today, with results expected by about 9 p.m.

"I think the membership is feeling a lot of angst," said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021.

The union in December overwhelmingly rejected a previous proposal that included an unpopular wage freeze and pension concessions. The union since planned for the strike while the county took its steps to block it.

Changes at the bargaining table led to the latest tentative deal. While pension cuts remain, the proposed pay freeze, now in place since 2008 on cost-of-living adjustments, would only continue for 16 months.

After that, for the remaining 16 months of the contract, starting in mid-2014, the county would provide a cost-of-living wage boost of 1 percent in the first year and an additional bump of 2 percent in mid-2015.

County officials have expressed hope for a settlement while remaining tight-lipped about its terms, saying they do not want to influence the union's decision.

"I really want their vote to go forward in as neutral an arena as possible," said County Administrator Veronica Ferguson.

County officials insist the contract proposal would result in savings for taxpayers, freeing up funds needed for government services and to pay off long-term pension liabilities. How much the immediate savings would be offset when the cost-of-living increases take effect is unclear.

SEIU leaders said they were unsure whether the future-year salary sweetener, plus additional money toward employee health care, would be enough to sway a majority of their 1,200 voting members. Many have called for an immediate wage bump, pointing to the reductions they've experienced since 2008 to help fill recession-era budgets.

Since then, the cost of living has gone up nearly 11 percent, with no adjustment for SEIU-represented workers, who are among the lowest-paid county employees. The cost of pay and benefits for county management and the fewer reductions in their ranks since 2008 have become central union issues.

"It's enough to make or break the vote," said Gill of the SEIU.

Although the SEIU called off its Thursday strike, a no vote by the union would authorize a future strike. Gill said reaching another tentative agreement would be "difficult."

Given that, county officials said they would return to negotiations, now in their 11th month, but would not rule out a new effort to block a strike while the two sides remained at the bargaining table.

You can reach Staff Writer Brett Wilkison at 521-5295 or brett.wilkison@pressdemocrat.com.

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