Purpose of Fresno Co. workers strike is left unmet

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By Kurtis Alexander – The Fresno Bee

Monday, Jan. 30, 2012 | 11:45 PM

Fresno County workers made a statement about wages last week when they walked off the job for three days.

But so far it’s done little to get county leadership back to the bargaining table.

Labor experts say employees face big hurdles in getting what they want, and some county leaders appear to have hardened their stance against worker demands since the strike.

“I have not had one phone call that said back off,” said county Supervisor Phil Larson, who maintains the county doesn’t have the money to meet employee wishes. “Most of my phone calls said just fire them, and hire more people.”

The 4,100-member Service Employees International Union staged last week’s strike in protest of pay cuts that averaged more than 9% — a reduction that union officials have called unaffordable and unfairly negotiated.

The union’s three-day walkout put many county services at a standstill.

SEIU officials said that was exactly the point — to draw attention to the value of employees’ work — and in that they declared success.

But union representatives conceded the strike has yet to win them leverage in their standoff with the county.

“During the strike, there was already talk among the members that if this doesn’t work, do we strike again?” said James Geluso, a union spokesman. “And that’s an option that’s certainly on the table for us.”

The union, whose members include mostly low-paid employees, also hopes the state labor board comes to its aid. That, however, could take several months and carries an uncertain outcome.

The California Public Employment Relations Board, which met privately last week with the union and county, has set a formal hearing to take up the union’s complaints in March. The board reserves the authority to require the county to adjust employee wages. The decision, though, can be appealed.

Labor experts say one of the biggest hurdles facing the union in its struggle for better wages remains the economy.

The public, which also is dealing with tough times, generally has been unsympathetic to the strikers’ plight and didn’t help pressure county leaders during the walkout.

“The union’s in a difficult spot. They don’t have public support,” said Mark Keppler, a labor mediator and professor at Fresno State’s Craig School of Business.

Keppler added that those hit hardest by the strike, mostly low-income families relying on public assistance, don’t have much political voice.

“It would have been different if the people impacted by these services voted,” Keppler said.

The five-member Board of Supervisors, which has say over employee pay, is scheduled to discuss the labor dispute at today’s board meeting.

But the majority of supervisors have stood firm on the need for employee concessions and have shown no sign of giving in.

“I think it’s unlikely we’ll come to a settlement,” said Supervisor Susan Anderson, who was among the board minority opposing employee pay cuts.

Anderson was joined by Supervisor Henry Perea last month in advocating for more negotiations before making the reductions.

SEIU members this week are expressing disappointment that county leaders haven’t been more accommodating since the strike.

“The lowest-paid employees were willing to sacrifice their pay to bring the Board of Supervisors back to the table,” said Kevin Westbrook, a correctional officer at the county juvenile hall. “Supervisors should take note.”

County leaders have said they’re willing to entertain a written proposal from the union if serious concessions are offered. Union officials have countered that concessions mean submitting to county demands, and they would prefer to sit down and talk with county negotiators.

John Navarrette, the county’s top administrator, said the strike has only hurt the union’s cause.

“All it did is create a larger divide between us,” he said. “I don’t think it accomplished what they set out to do.”

THE REPORTER CAN BE REACHED AT (559) 441-6679 OR KALEXANDER@FRESNOBEE.COM

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