California state union leader Yvonne Walker has a sales job on her hands
06/23/2012 12:00 AM
07/03/2012 11:44 PM
The toughest sales job in California over the next few weeks belongs to a former Marine who will have to explain to tens of thousands of state workers why they should accept yet another pay cut.
Eventually it will fall to SEIU Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker to persuade the voting members of the 93,000-employee union to swallow a 5 percent reduction in their wages to help balance California's wobbly budget.
The union is still under contract for another year. The members have already endured furloughs. And Gov. Jerry Brown, the labor-friendly Democrat they helped elect, proposed the cut.
The complexity of Walker's position was on full display at a recent webcast town hall with Service Employees International Union members.
"Every year there's going to be a deficit," said one long-time state worker who said he is at the top of his job's pay range. "So we're bargaining what? Cuts in pay or layoffs. So what year are we going to say, no more cuts in pay, we're going to have to do layoffs?"
Walker responded, "Short-term, we're going to have to take a cut. One of the solutions is that we've got to go out and work for revenue."
Another complained that he worked a union phone bank in the governor's race because "Gov. Brown wasn't going to take our money" with furloughs the way former GOP Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger did.
"I should have voted for an independent," he said.
Walker is defending Brown to her members, saying the governor never promised not to make cuts, only that he would work more closely with the unions.
Her position is especially ticklish because Brown is depending on unions to support his November ballot measure to increase sales and some income taxes. His wage-reduction proposal also helps him make the case to voters that he's a serious cost-cutter.
That means Walker will have to sell whatever austerity payroll plan emerges from the negotiations to the same union activists she'll soon ask to evangelize for Brown's tax proposition.
Yet even if the measure succeeds, it doesn't mean worker pay will be restored.
In an interview last week, Walker said she's working to remind state workers of the bigger picture.
"We've never contended that state workers exist on an island and that what happens in California doesn't impact us," she said. "A lot of these programs that get cut aren't just programs we administer. They're programs we use."
Walker, 52 and the first African American woman to ascend to Local 1000's top job, says she's used to rough-and-tumble organizational politics.
As a student at Oceanside High School in Southern California in the mid-'70s, Walker organized the school's Black Students Association.
Later, she followed in her father's footsteps and served in the Marine Corps for 10 years, first as a military police officer and then as a court reporter.
Those early experiences, she said, taught her the power of organization, the value of training, strategic thinking and execution.
Walker joined the state Department of Justice in 1995 and rose through Local 1000's activist ranks to become vice president of bargaining in 2007. She won election to her first three-year presidential term in 2008.
Two months later, Schwarzenegger tried to withhold state workers' wages to the federal minimum when budget talks deadlocked with majority Democrats in the Legislature. The plan bogged down in the courts.
Walker quickly became a leading figure in fights with the "Terminator" actor-politician over furloughs, paid holidays, overtime and another failed minimum-wage brouhaha in 2010. At each turn, Walker rallied her members.
The local went two years without a contract before coming to terms with Schwarzenegger near the end of his term. It was a mixed bag of concessions and gains, including deferred raises for top-step workers but higher employee pension contributions and more furloughs.
Walker sold the contract as a best-of-a-bad-situation deal. More than three-quarters of the voting rank and file ratified it.
With the agreement in place, a Democrat in the governor's chair and a period of relative calm compared to the Schwarzenegger era, Walker handily won re-election last May.
Later that year, a swell of criticism washed over Walker after members learned of a controversial union stipend plan that would have paid her $103,000 above the $47,000 annual wage that the local reimburses the state.
Walker said she had nothing to do with the pay hike idea, although she thought it deserved consideration because of the demands of the job. Outrage from union rank and file grew so intense that Walker shelved the idea for the time being.
Now the grumbling is back.
Many SEIU members suspect Walker cut a backroom deal to accept Brown's plan to move most state workers – the majority of them covered by Local 1000 – to 9.5-hour shifts four days per week.
Walker has said she suggested moving to a four-day, 10-hour workweek to save money by closing state facilities an extra day each week.
The governor "put a twist on our 4/10/40 workweek," Walker said during the online town hall meeting. "He said, 'Yeah, we like that four-day idea, but let's do it in a 38-hour workweek, and people will work a 9 1/2-hour day."
The possibility that furloughs might return – and a suspicion that Walker privately signed off on it – has upset many Local 1000 members, who feel betrayed by a governor their union helped elect.
This week, as the union continued bargaining with Brown, Department of Social Services employee Paul Warrick fired off an email that accused Walker of sacrificing state employees' pay for for tax politics.
"Please don't act complicitly with the Governor by continuing to further sacrifice our benefits and wages for political appearances aimed at persuading the electorate to support the Governor's tax increase in November," Warrick pleaded. "Besides, the electorate (is) clamoring for pension reform, not more furloughs. They won't be impressed."
Ed Perez, an SEIU activist who ran on a slate of Local 1000 candidates opposed to Walker's slate last year, said that when Schwarzenegger left, "People around here said, 'Thank God.' "
"I don't think they expected this from Brown," he said. "It was a slap in the face to them, especially after pushing his signature campaign" for the November tax initiative.
Local 1000 and administration negotiators have been talking for two weeks in search of an agreement.
Unions representing Highway Patrol officers, firefighters, psychiatric workers and correctional officers have already reached one-day-per-month furlough deals with Brown. Since those employees work in departments that operate 24/7, the governor agreed to cut their pay by roughly 5 percent each month for a year but gave them scheduling flexibility.
Local 1000 is bigger than all of those unions combined, with employees it represents in virtually every department in state government. It's triple the size of the next-biggest group, the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
Local 1000's size and diversity makes it extremely difficult to lead. From prison nurses to office custodians, each group has different working conditions and, often, different priorities.
"It's one of the most difficult things to do in labor relations – convincing members to give up more than they have to," said Dave Gilb, director of the state Department of Personnel Administration under Schwarzenegger.
"Yvonne's got a very hard job. No matter what she does, she's going to be criticized."
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