Few public-sector workers can hope to join the wealthiest 1 percent. But economic inequality is at the top of county workers’ grievances as they negotiate a union contract.
John Roitz, a water resources technician, is one of about 2,800 Monterey County employees in Service Workers Service Employees International Union Local 521. Roitz’ biggest beef isn’t better pay or more vacation time for SEIU members; it’s management perks.
Roitz, one of about 20 union members on SEIU’s bargaining team, calculates nearly $15 million a year in incentives available to managers. “There are going to be no concessions with these management perks in place,” he says. “We find it to be egregious, inequitable and wrong.”
The perks Roitz and the SEIU take issue with: the ability to cash out on unused health benefits and vacation time.
“If everyone decided to cash out tomorrow, it would break the county,” County Supervisor Fernando Armenta says. “We don’t have the money.”
Union reps met with Armenta at his home in Salinas over the Board of Supervisors’ summer recess, urging him to push for cuts to management perks, which he says he’s doing in closed session. That one-on-one pressure escalated to a protest outside county headquarters when the supes returned to work Aug. 27.
The specific requests SEIU workers are making for themselves are confidential. The next all-day bargaining session is scheduled for Sept. 11.
County HR Director James May says going two-plus months without a contract is no surprise, considering SEIU’s significant demands and the county’s simultaneous negotiations with 14 of 18 bargaining units. (SEIU 521 represents about two-thirds of county employees; others, like sheriff’s-deputy and public-defender associations, represent much smaller numbers of workers.)
“There’s no perfect solution,” May says. “We’re trying to put together a compensation philosophy that is equitable.”
The 3.5-percent pay cut workers took in 2011 to help absorb the impact of the recession should start to soften, Roitz says, thanks to a $100-million budget increase this year. “We decided to do our part,” he says. “Now the county’s finances are way better.”
But May says the county’s spiking health-insurance and pension costs ate up most of that budget bump. “The county has been willing to pick up those [increased health care] costs,” he says.
Still, the potential of a strike looms. “We’re not there yet,” SEIU organizer Joel Hill says, “but we’re getting really close.”