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Jon Ortiz

The State Worker: Are engineers and scientists going soft on Jerry Brown?

Published: Thursday, Aug. 16, 2012 - 12:00 am | Page 3A
Last Modified: Tuesday, Feb. 26, 2013 - 8:13 pm

Are two unions known for fearlessly fighting state worker furloughs going soft?

Exhibit A: Gov. Jerry Brown last week appealed a court order to restore lost wages to about 14,000 state engineers and scientists who received two extra furlough days in April 2011. Alameda Superior Court Judge Steven Brick also ordered up to 70 days of pay for 250 workers in those classes whose jobs should have been exempt from furloughs entirely.

Brown's appeal freezes about $12 million in back pay while the case climbs up the legal ladder. When Brown's GOP predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, did that sort of stuff it drove the unions crazy.

Brown may personally believe furloughs are bad business – his 2010 campaign said so – and he's certainly not eager to write a big furlough paycheck. Just imagine the ads against the governor's November tax measure if he did: "Jerry Brown paid $12 million to state workers to stay home – and now he wants to raise your taxes??"

The unions understand this. They also want to support the guy they helped elect and will have to deal with when contract talks start next spring. They don't have much choice.

So when pressed for comment about Brown's appeal, California Association of Professional Scientists' President David Miller fired back – but not at Brown.

"We were hoping to put an end to this Schwarzenegger-era furlough litigation," Miller said in an email.

Exhibit B: After pay-cut talks between Brown and the engineers union broke down in June, the governor imposed a one-day-per-month furlough on the 12,000 or so members of Professional Engineers in California Government.

If Schwarzenegger had done that, PECG would have revved up its lawyers, sharpened its talking points and called the media to protest.

PECG was among the first to sue over furloughs nearly four years ago. The union has a fixed place in labor history as a party in PECG v. Schwarzenegger, the state Supreme Court's key 2010 ruling that the Legislature deputized the former governor to furlough workers.

This time PECG went a different route, quietly filing a June 4 grievance claiming the administration violated PECG's contract by recommending that the Legislature fund only 95 percent of the hourly wage terms in the agreement. It's a roundabout way of protesting the furlough itself.

The grievance is a low-profile alternative to a lawsuit. It's like the difference between family therapy and a fistfight in the street.

Bruce Blanning, PECG's executive director, said the union still has options, including the lawsuit route.

"The governor was critical of his predecessor, but now he's appealing this decision – and he's chosen to impose furloughs on our members," Blanning said during a Wednesday interview. "We're looking at those actions that may appear to be somewhat inconsistent. We haven't determined a course of action."

When Schwarzenegger was in office, there wouldn't have been any debate.

© Copyright The Sacramento Bee. All rights reserved.

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About The State Worker

Jon Ortiz The Author

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog and a companion column in 2008 to cover state government from the perspective of California government employees. Every day he filters the news through a single question: "What does this mean for state workers?" Join Ortiz for updates and debate on state pay, benefits, pensions, contracts and jobs. Contact him at (916) 321-1043 and at jortiz@sacbee.com.

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