Col. Christopher Gadsden was born in 1724 in South Carolina, which was then part of England. After a successful business career with two plantations, four stores and several merchant vessels to his name, he went on to become a semi-significant Revolutionary War fighter, then a South Carolina politician.
While he was a member of the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia, he designed an alternate flag to the stars and stripes: it’s a yellow flag with a coiled rattlesnake that reads, “Don’t tread on me.”
I’m recounting Gadsden’s patriotic history not because it’s the Fourth of July, but because his iconic flag imagery surfaced in a different context on Friday, June 28. That’s when bargaining team members of SEI Local 521, representing some 3,200 Monterey County employees, were in tense negotiations with county attorneys and human resources representatives. Outside, a rally of about 250 of them gathered with horns and chants of “I believe that we will win,” calling for a fair shake. Some wore pins with a yellow border and an image of a fierce viper that read, “Monterey County SEI Local 521 / If provoked will strike.”
On that day, as they gathered for an energetic rally in the courtyard of the county building on Schilling Place in Salinas, these employees were not prepared to go on strike; after all, their contract included a no-strike clause. But the clock was ticking toward Sunday, June 30, when their three-year contract was set to expire. No contract, no no-strike clause. Like that, Gadsden’s imagery of American individualism was relevant again, this time as union imagery.
One member of SEIU’s negotiating team is Laurel Crisan, who lives in Prunedale and works as a secretary for Social Services in Seaside. She notes with irony that some workers who help determine eligibility for benefits are themselves on public benefits. “How is that decent?” Crisan says. “This is so important that we will strike. We want to keep our health care and get a decent cost-of-living raise. It’s not a lot to ask for.”
A “lot” is a subjective term. Take a look at Monterey County’s $1.5 billion budget for 2019-20, and the graphs showing the lion’s share of growing expenses are employee-related. There’s a spike for pension contributions, from $60 million this year to an estimated $86 million in 2024-25. Health insurance expenditures are projected to go from $61.7 million this year to $68.8 million in 2021-22.
The county pays 100 percent of those employees’ health insurance premiums, something virtually unheard of in the private sector. County negotiators are asking for employees to start contributing out 4 percent, then 7 percent next year and moving up to 10 percent in 2022.
SEIU members say they’ve forgone raises again and again since the 2008 recession, largely on the basis that they get health insurance covered. Their intent has always been to hold onto that bargaining chip. Even a modest contribution to health insurance now, they argue, is a slippery slope – and for many, it’s the biggest recruitment perk of the job.
Really, the stalemate gets at the question of who should pay for health insurance, a question that Democratic presidential nominees also tackled in the first round of debates on June 26-27. Their proposals range from abolishing the private health insurance marketplace altogether to a mandate for everyone to have insurance (basically expanded Obamacare) to a universal public option with additional private insurance on top of that. Almost all of the 20 candidates who debated propose blowing up the existing system in some way.
On July 1, Monterey County workers showed up as normal, continuing their jobs without a contract. The bargaining team would have to call for a vote among membership on whether to authorize a strike, and at least 50 percent would have to support it for a strike to move forward.
Three bargaining sessions between the county and the union were still on the calendar for July as of press time. Here’s to hoping they find a middle ground, because no presidential fix is coming until after 2020, if ever. Meanwhile, a viper on a pin as well as thousands of county employees – including those, ironically, who administer health care to the county’s indigent population – are poised to strike.
SARA RUBIN is the Weekly’s editor. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at twitter.com/sarahayleyrubin