HECTOR AMEZCUA / hamezcua@sacbee.com

President Yvonne Walker, who led Local 1000's support for Jerry Brown during his campaign for governor, now reminds her members that Brown never promised not to make cuts, but said only that he would work more closely with unions.

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Government labor unions give ground in California as budgets are squeezed

Published: Wednesday, Jul. 4, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Wednesday, Jul. 4, 2012 - 1:26 pm

When California's largest public employee union announced Tuesday that its members accepted another year of furloughs, it was one more sign that government labor unions are moving to make concessions.

Although Service Employees International Union Local 1000's contract doesn't expire until next year, the union said two-thirds of the voting rank and file supported an agreement reached with Gov. Jerry Brown that mandates 12 unpaid days off over the next 12 months.

The union sold the deal, which represents a 4.62 percent cut in hours and pay, as an opportunity for workers to control their own fate.

"If we had simply refused to bargain with Gov. Brown, we would have been stuck with whatever terms he imposed with the Legislature," Margarita Maldonado, vice president for bargaining, said in a statement.

Pressure has mounted on public employee unions in California to give ground on pay and benefits as deficits continue squeezing government.

At the state level, most labor groups have been willing to work with Brown, a Democratic governor they helped elect and who is promoting a tax increase on the November ballot that they support.

"The unions don't want to rock the boat," said Michael Shires, a Pepperdine University political scientist and state budget expert. "They want to maintain a positive relationship with the governor and the Democratic Legislature – and keep a low profile."

Local 1000 didn't disclose how many of the 93,000 workers it represents participated in an unusual one-day election that took place on Wednesday at 82 polling stations around the state.

The union usually mails out ratification ballots and allows a few weeks for members to return them. Local 1000 officials said pressure to get a vote on the furlough agreement quickly to coincide with the July 1 start of the new fiscal year prompted the unusual process this time.

When asked by The Bee last week, the local wouldn't say whether it would abide by the results. The union's bylaws don't require members to ratify so-called "side letter" agreements like the furlough deal.

All of that caused members like Local 1000 activist Richard Louis Brown to question the legitimacy of the vote.

"How can I trust the process?" Louis asked, adding that he voted against the agreement largely because he believes the state should honor Local 1000's current contract.

Still, the momentum for furloughs has gone Brown's way. As of Tuesday, 19 of 21 bargaining units that represent about 181,000 state workers have agreed to furloughs, from Highway Patrol officers to environmental scientists.

Some local government workers are swallowing cuts, too.

In Sacramento, for example, the city firefighters union last week ratified an agreement that will save 44 jobs by requiring firefighters to pick up their own share of pension contributions.

Teachers at Sacramento City Unified have agreed to 10 furlough days if the school year is shortened because Brown's tax increases don't pass, while teachers at San Juan Unified Teachers Association said they would take 11 furlough days.

Other unions have resisted. Sacramento's police union didn't reach an agreement for concessions, prompting the city to lay off 16 officers last week.

Unions representing about 12,000 California Department of Transportation engineers and another 900 state building operations and maintenance employees hadn't agreed to take furloughs as of Monday evening. If the unions don't reach a deal with Brown, the Legislature has passed a bill that gives the governor authority to impose furloughs on those workers.

Bruce Blanning, executive director of the engineers union, said his group is holding out for guarantees that the state will curtail outsourcing to private firms – work that his members could perform.

"We'd agree to an unpaid leave deal if we had some assurance of that," Blanning said.

The SEIU agreement includes a provision that sets up a contract review task force, but Blanning said his group wants a stronger commitment from Brown.

"We have no interest in a committee or task force," Blanning said. "We need some specific limit on that contracting."

Despite the pockets of resistance, Tuesday's announcement by Local 1000 is a big win for Brown. The union covers about 93,000 workers, half the state's organized employees. Their work affects virtually every niche of California's vast state bureaucracy.

Another 20,000 managers and supervisors have no union representation. Those excluded employees generally receive working terms that mirror the unionized workers they supervise.

Brown has estimated furloughs will chop $839 million from the state payroll, with about $401 million saved from the state's $91.3 billion general fund.

The policy is a reversal for a governor who in 2010 campaigned for office criticizing furloughs administered by his GOP predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, although Brown's furloughs aren't as severe. Unpaid time off imposed by Schwarzenegger and the Legislature cut salaries by up to 14 percent from February 2009 to April 2011.

The unions don't want to create trouble for Brown, Shires said, because they're fearful of what might happen if his tax measure fails to pass. Labor groups also are fighting another measure that would restrict the use of payroll deductions for political purposes.

"There are a lot of things in the air that can hurt them in November," Shires said. "They need to preserve their public capital and look like they are doing their part to help solve problems."

While California continues to lean on furloughs, other states are relying on them less as their budgets begin to recover.

In fiscal 2011-12, just nine states launched furloughs and nine laid off employees, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The year before, 29 states implemented unpaid days off and 26 executed layoffs.

Todd Haggerty, a fiscal policy analyst with the conference, said it's difficult to get a fix on exactly how many states are using furloughs. Some are selectively furloughing department by department.

"But with that said, states in general are moving away from furloughs as they make a slow, steady climb out of the Great Recession in 2008," Haggerty said.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

Read more articles by Jon Ortiz



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