SEIU blasts Tulare County over pact

by David Castellon
Dec. 15, 2011

Before Tulare County supervisors voted Tuesday not to alter the employment contract for most of the county’s full-time workers — keeping their mandatory furloughs in place — they heard harsh words from their union.

Kristy Sermersheim told the supervisors prior to their vote, “You had no intention, whatsoever, to negotiate in good faith” over changes to the contract for the 2,353 employees represented by Service Employees International Union 521.

They total more than half of the 3,800-plus people working full-time for the county, which had requested negotiations with all 10 collective-bargaining units representing county employees. The purpose of the talks was to remove from all county employment contracts requirements to reduce workers’ pay by 1.92 percent and make them take 40 hours of furloughs — or other financial concessions imposed as county cost-cutting measures.

But after the start of the fiscal year, which began July 1, officials determined that money left over from the prior fiscal year’s budget would be about $2 million more than had been expected, so county supervisors voted to eliminate the furloughs this fiscal year.

To do that, they first had to change the labor contracts to remove the furlough and pay-cut requirements.

Nine of the bargaining units agreed to the changes, but negotiations with SEIU broke down, county Human Resources and Development Director Jeff Cardell told the supervisors Tuesday during their regular weekly meeting.

He then recommended that the board vote not to alter SEIU’s contract, leaving the furlough and pay-reduction provisions in place for the workers the union represents.

A report from Cardell’s office claims that the union brought 20 requests for changes to the current contract to the table.

SEIU officials have been at odds with the county since negotiations on a new labor contract broke down earlier this year and the supervisors voted to impose a contract based on the county’s last, best offer — over the union’s objections.

In fact, Greg Gomez, president of the Tulare County SEIU chapter, said last week that as far as he was concerned, no contract exists between the county and the union.

The major bump in the negotiations has been the union’s claim that the county agreed that freezes in promotions and merit pay increases that began in August 2009 would be lifted at the end of the two-year contract. In addition, the union says pay rates and promotion levels for about 1,000 SEIU-represented workers were supposed to be set in August to the level they would be this year had the freezes not occurred.

That was one of the issues that SEIU wanted to negotiate when the county sought to change its labor contract to remove the furloughs. The union also extended an offer to continue the furloughs for the workers it represents in exchange for the merit pay increases and promotions.

“When our attorney discussed this with you, your spokeswoman acknowledged Tulare County was legally responsible to reopen all aspects of the expired contract,” Sermersheim told the board Tuesday. “But in reality, you had absolutely no intention of actually bargaining with us over how to utilize these unanticipated funds.”

After Sermersheim’s statements, the supervisors had no discussion on the matter and voted unanimously not to alter the SEIU contract.

Supervisor Mike Ennis, the board’s chairman, declined afterward to discuss the union’s claims.

And Jean Rousseau, the county’s chief administrative officer, offered only brief comments, saying, “We went to the bargaining table. We negotiated in good faith. It didn’t work out.

“I think it’s really unfortunate that the employees of SEIU aren’t going to benefit from the suspension of the furloughs.”

Sermersheim said after the meeting that she wasn’t surprised how the vote turned out.

“This board does not respect the workers in this county or the union, which is their voice,” she said. “Our members work very hard for this county and do very important work, and they’re not getting what they deserve or the respect from this board to get what they deserve.”

SEIU filed an unfair labor practices claim in August with the California Public Employees Relations Board after the county ended contract negotiations, and Sermersheim said the union will amend the claim to include the county’s actions in the latest negotiations.

She said the state agency could order a hearing to determine if the county bargained in good faith with SEIU and whether the county violated a commitment to end the promotion and merit pay freezes, as the union claims.

Sermersheim said SEIU also is considering taking the county to court.

“We’ve given them the opportunity to settle the legal dispute we have, essentially at a discounted price,” she said.

Tuesday’s board meeting was the last for the year. No others are scheduled until Jan. 10 to give county staff time off for the holidays.

During that meeting, Ennis said, the board is expected to elect District 1 Supervisor Allen Ishida as its new chairman and District 2 Supervisor Pete Vander Poel as vice chairman.

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