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The largest group of unionized Sonoma County government employees plans to strike next month to protest what it says is county inaction on a union proposal to save taxpayer money and several other issues it says amount to unfair labor practices.

But the planned Feb. 28 walkout also is geared, indirectly at least, to rachet up pressure on now-protracted contract talks with the county, where the employees face a package of unpopular pay and pension cuts.

A proposed labor agreement with those concessions was overwhelmingly rejected last month by members of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021, which represents about half of the county's 3,500 employees.

The workers include frontline staff at most county departments outside of public safety divisions, whose sworn ranks would not be affected by the walkout.

The standoff has developed in the 10th month of negotiations between the county and the union, and after years of job cuts, unpaid furloughs and other reductions aimed to fill large recession-era deficits.

Union members say those budgets were balanced largely on the backs of their workers and that an improved financial forecast for county government should put a halt to the cuts.

"Good faith at the bargaining table means you're actually talking about solutions, give and take," said Lathe Gill, Santa Rosa-based area director for SEIU Local 1021. "The last five years, it's been all about take and not give."

But with county tax revenue only set for marginal growth this year, and with $353 million in long-term unfunded pension promises plus multimillion-dollar annual backlogs in road upkeep and capital improvements, county officials say current compensation levels need to be cut for all employees, including managers and elected officials. The current plan is to have those higher paid workers take sharper pay and benefit cuts if unions agree to concessions for their members.

"We don't have enough money," County Administrator Veronica Ferguson said. "To be sustainable requires us all to tighten our belts."

Strikes by county workers are rare in recent decades. Union representatives say the planned action, which has been endorsed by affiliated labor groups in the region, is needed to air their grievances, including claims of county interference with union bargaining activity.

"It affects the integrity of (the negotiation) process," Gill said.

But county officials have questioned whether the protest is fueled more by dispute over the economic concessions under negotiation, including measures to curb rising pension costs and reduce overall compensation levels by 3 percent. If so, the walkout may violate state labor laws, which prohibit such strikes for public employees during the course of contract talks.

Ferguson said that either way, the planned action was "premature."

"I expect SEIU to comply with the law," she said. If the strike does occur, she said, managers would be tasked with providing key public services for the day. The county also could go to court to prevent other "essential" employees from striking, she said.

"All of the signs we've seen at the table is that they (SEIU) are continuing to negotiate in good faith," she said.

Union leaders said the planned action did not represent a step away from the bargaining table. The two sides have met once this month and are set to meet again Feb. 6.

But the union's movement toward a strike has been building since its December contract vote, when 87 percent of the voting members turned down a tentative agreement reached in late November.

The vote also authorized a future strike, and union leaders on Jan. 10 decided to take that step. They announced the Feb. 28 action on their website last week.

"We're united on this issue," Andre Bercut, a chief steward with Local 1021, was quoted as saying in an online update to members. "If management won't come to the table with real solutions, we'll force their hand and walk out."

Other SEIU materials distributed locally also have touted the potential impact of a strike on contract talks, with one flier calling labor stoppage a "game changer."

Still, labor leaders insisted in interviews last week that the planned walkout was based not on differences at the bargaining table but on the union's complaints of allegedly improper county labor practices.

Their broadest charge is that county officials have refused to address management-to-line staff ratios, a move they contend would cut annual payroll costs by up to $40 million, or about 8 percent of total yearly pay and benefits.

"It has to do with managers doing our bargaining unit work. We can do it for less," Gill said. "Their refusal to talk about an economic issue has an impact on services to the community."

Both sides have marshalled statistics in the public debate. Union members focus on the higher overall loss of rank-and-file jobs versus management posts since 2008, with union data showing more than 90 percent of the cuts in rank-and-file positions. Labor leaders say the trend has resulted in a top-heavy workforce with bloated six-figure salaries.

"There's a general feeling that there's some real inequality in terms of shared sacrifice," said Lisa Maldonado, executive director of the North Bay Labor Council, a coalition of public- and private-sector unions that have backed the strike.

County records show the share of cuts to rank-and-file positions at closer to 80 percent over the same period. Either way, the effect on the line staff-to-management ratio was not glaring, officials said. County data actually shows a slight uptick in the staff-to-management ratio, while union data shows a drop, from 6.1-to-1 to 5.8-to-1. The drop is larger stretching back to 2000, when the ratio of staff to management was 7.4-to-1, according to the union.

SEIU representatives are calling for a ratio closer to 11-to-1, the mandated staffing goal for public agencies in other states, including Oregon and Texas.

County officials say they are studying the issue, with a report due to the Board of Supervisors in March evaluating possible cost savings.

But they also said the subject, which encompasses the entire county workforce and 10 other employee bargaining groups, is not one they are going to negotiate with SEIU or any other group.

"I understand their concern," said Supervisor Shirlee Zane, who has perhaps the strongest ties to organized labor on the current board. "There are departments that do need to improve those ratios . . . At the same time you have to have clear boundaries in terms of what we negotiate. And it has to be in the contract."

The union is also pressing several other charges related to alleged county interference with activity by SEIU bargaining team members. It has made a formal complaint to state labor officials on one of the interference charges, and Gill said it would do the same with the other claims.

County officials said they were addressing the one formal complaint, which concerned a bargaining team member who said he was threatened by his manager with a job transfer because of his union responsibilities.

Ferguson said the union official was not being transferred and would be allowed to continue with his union duties.

She declined to answer questions pertaining to the remaining union charges, which have not yet been filed with state labor officials.

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

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