Consider Bruce Blanning's position.
You're executive director of the state engineers union. The contract covering your group's 13,000 members expires in July, and the best thing you can say about California government's fiscal picture is that at least it's less broke than it was last year.
"The message coming across (from Gov. Jerry Brown's administration) is, 'Don't line up looking for the open checkbook,' " Blanning said during a recent interview at the Professional Engineers in California Government's Sacramento headquarters.
So what's left to negotiate?
Despite the state's projected $1.9 billion deficit through fiscal 2013-14, the engineers union, like nine other state labor groups with contracts that expire next summer, will bring a long wish list to the bargaining table. The topics will likely include limits on job outsourcing, employee health insurance, travel reimbursement rates and, yes, wage increases.
But cost-of-living raises won't be part of those talks, said Daniel J.B. Mitchell, a labor and public policy expert at UCLA's Anderson School of Management, because "it's going to be easier for Brown to deal with things that aren't so high profile, that don't overtly translate into dollars next year."
Still, years of furloughs and escalating pension contributions have left state employees expecting more from Brown and union leaders such as Blanning this time around.
The governor became the state's employer-in-chief in 2010 with labor's money and manpower. He again relied on public employee unions to put his November tax measure, Proposition 30, over the top.
But instead of restoring their pay and benefits, Brown pushed for wider public-pension rollbacks. Last summer he burnished his reputation as a budget-cutter by pressing 11 state employee unions to accept another round of furloughs, even though they were under contract.
Blanning's 13,000-member engineers union refused. So the state imposed the unpaid time off that other unions accepted.
Despite a quick smile and a soft-spoken, self-deprecating manner, Blanning is considered a bare-knuckle infighter willing to go eyeball-to-eyeball with both Democratic and Republican governors over the 31 years he's been at the union's helm.
"He's a tough, shrewd, wily negotiator," said Dave Gilb, who negotiated labor contracts for Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. "If you're sitting across from him, you have to really be on your toes."
Although the Brown administration is signaling that raises are out of bounds, the engineers will still raise the issue of pay parity in next year's talks.
Blanning has said he wants the same kind of phased-in wage increases that he negotiated several years ago to tie state engineers' pay to what their local government counterparts earned. The state agreed after several high-profile employees left the California Department of Transportation for more lucrative local positions, jolting the department.
The engineers' last parity raise came in 2008. Since then, Caltrans has lost two directors and a high-level Southern California district manager.
All left for local jobs, illustrating that the department's wages "up and down the line" are again falling behind, Blanning said.
Blanning's 2013 agenda also includes curtailing how many state engineering jobs go out to private firms. One union estimates that the state government has $30 billion tied up in private-sector contracts.
Blanning is particularly critical of farming out infrastructure inspection work. The policy, he says, endangers public safety and gouges taxpayers by injecting a profit motive that encourages contractors to cut their costs and run up their billable hours.
Private-sector firms counter that outsourcing is cheaper, speeds up projects and introduces healthy competition into an insulated, bloated bureaucracy.
Beyond pay parity and outsourcing, Blanning said the engineers want resolution of several smaller issues, such as increasing the state's overnight lodging reimbursement rate. State contracts allow employees to claim $84 per night on business trips, $110 for hotels in San Francisco or Los Angeles. The rates were set in 1999.
"It's not headline-grabbing stuff," Blanning said, "but it matters to our members."
CALIFORNIANS TO WATCH IN 2013: BRUCE BLANNING
Office: Executive director, Professional Engineers in California Government
Résumé highlight: Launched the state engineers union when state employees organized in 1981 and has negotiated every contract for the group since then.
Biggest challenge in 2013: Hammering out a new labor deal with the Brown administration while the state confronts a $1.9 billion deficit.
Chief goal in 2013: Establishing pay parity with local governments and reducing the number of engineering jobs outsourced to private companies.