Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Gov. Jerry Brown orders furloughs for holdout unions

Published: Thursday, Jul. 12, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Somewhere former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger must be smiling.

Last week, his Democratic successor, Jerry Brown, used the authority given to him by the Legislature to quietly impose a one-day-per-month furlough on about 12,000 state workers.

For the first time in more than three years of state furloughs, everyone under gubernatorial control is taking unpaid time off. The cuts reduce pay and hours by nearly 5 percent, an $839 million cut in state payroll costs for the new fiscal year.

And this from a Democrat whose campaign aide in 2010 blasted Schwarzenegger's furloughs as "a temporary solution to a permanent problem."

Most of the unions negotiated these latest reductions with Brown in return for contract extensions or tighter reviews of government outsourcing.

But two unions representing state engineers and heavy equipment operators held out. So Brown, with the Legislature's blessing, issued a memo last Thursday telling departments to furlough those workers just like everyone else – even though they are under contract.

A Schwarzenegger administration would have trumpeted the memo from the top of the Capitol dome.

The actor-turned-politician often publicly scuffled with organized labor to leverage his political agenda. He spent his last two years in office up to his muscular neck in more than 40 furlough lawsuits. He won some and lost some, with thousands of employees escaping the pay cut.

Schwarzenegger always spun those fights with labor as a badge of honor, yet despite the rhetoric, the GOP governor either bargained furloughs or imposed them on workers whose deals had expired.

Brown negotiated furloughs with 19 of 21 bargaining units that represent the roughly 182,000 unionized state workers under his authority. But then his Thursday memo imposed the same thing on the two holdout groups, even though they are still under contract.

Bruce Blanning, executive director of one if those groups, Professional Engineers in California Government, said the union could sue, contending furloughs violate a provision in PECG's contract: "... the regular work week of full-time (PECG) employees shall be forty hours."

To win, the union would have to establish that language prohibits reducing employees' hours, said Sacramento-based labor attorney Tim Yeung.

"I've always argued that it means you're not going to have 50- or 60- hour workweeks," said Yeung, who once worked for what is now the state's human resources department. "But, who knows? It might work."

Although a PECG lawsuit would focus on its members, a win would have wider implications for future contracts, Yeung said, since many contain similar workweek language.

So here we go again. If the unions sue, Brown might want to call his predecessor for a furlough lawyer referral – once Schwarzenegger stops chuckling.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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