REGINA KANE: A deal’s still a deal, right?

Published in – Jan. 16, 2011 – Opinion by Regina Kane –

Ralph Bailey said something on his Bakersfield radio show a few weeks back. If a person — he was talking about a lawyer he knew — was hired by an employer, they made a deal. The employer would pay a certain amount of money and benefits, and it’s not right to change that afterward. A deal’s a deal, Ralph said.

Last year, Kern County supervisors decided they didn’t care for that idea. But two of them are gone now, and I’m hoping the new supervisors, Zack Scrivner and Karen Goh, will have more honor.

The supervisors say that everybody should pay into their medical benefits, and should pay for their retirement as well. The Kern County workers who belong to SEIU Local 521 agreed to that more than 13 years ago. At the same time, we agreed to pay the full retirement contribution for five years; six years ago, we changed that to “five years” to “forever.” And in 2007, the 3-at-60 pension was eliminated; new employees have been getting a hybrid of a tiny pension and a 401(k)-style account.

But we also held sacred the concept that a deal’s a deal. A reduction in benefits means a reduction in pay, and that’s not fair to the people who have done their jobs, and planned their budgets, in good faith. It’s not right to let someone go buy a house and a car and a college education for their kids based on one income, then reduce that income.

It’s not right that two people doing the same job get paid differently. But we, and the county, agreed that this was the lesser evil. Last year, county supervisors changed their mind.

But this time, they didn’t consult with us. They didn’t negotiate, as both ethics and the law require. They decided on the outcome before negotiations began. They refused to consider anything we asked for, and they refused to consider alternative ways of reaching the same goal. Supervisor Ray Watson several times declared that he wouldn’t negotiate through the press or in the supervisors’ chambers. He could have saved some breath and just said he wouldn’t negotiate.

We know these are tight times, and we know the county didn’t cause this financial crisis any more than we workers did. We know that we will have to sacrifice to get through this temporary tough time.

But there are other ways. Would furloughs be a better way? What about across-the-board, temporary pay cuts? And by the way, what does the budget really look like, and how much do we really need to save? We don’t know the answer to any of those questions, and the county isn’t interested in finding out whether there’s a better way than causing the laundry workers in the hospital’s basement to go apply for welfare.

And most of what the county is demanding won’t even help. Many workers are mostly or entirely funded by the federal government, so cuts to them would only mean less money is being spent in Kern County businesses.

I know some people are asking why, if they have sacrificed, we shouldn’t. Too many people have lost their livelihoods or taken pay cuts or demotions. Why would you then wish it on other people, just because they are public servants? That kind of small thinking won’t help you, and it won’t help Kern County recover.

The workers that chose me to speak for them are the people who plowed the snows in Tehachapi and Frazier Park. They’re the nurses who care for our sick friends and relatives all through the night, and the service workers who change their bedsheets. They’re the inspectors keeping restaurants from cutting corners on cleanliness, and they’re the support staff who keep our sheriff’s deputies and firefighters free to do their jobs.

They’re taxpayers, too. They despise waste and abuse, and they can tell you where it is. They hate ineffective government. And they’re hard workers who care for their children and grandchildren. They attend your churches, they eat at your restaurants, they shop at your stores. And all they want is a seat at the table, to figure out how to get through this together.

Scrivner and Goh can restore honor to the county’s dealings. It’s a lot to ask of two people, but we trust they didn’t seek this office just to take the easy way out.

Regina Kane is president of the Kern County chapter of SEIU Local 521, which represents 5,700 workers.

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