The State Worker

Jon Ortiz chronicles civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker: Union contract bargaining clock winding down

05/21/2014 6:58 PM

05/21/2014 6:59 PM

It’s crunch time for the two state employee unions holding out for a contract. The unions representing scientists and attorneys want more than Gov. Jerry Brown wants to give. But really, the talks were pretty much settled a long time ago by another union: SEIU Local 1000.

Negotiators have about a month to bargain agreements before lawmakers go on recess, consigning the combined 10,000 so or employees in those two unions to a summer of working under the terms of contracts that expired a year ago.

The administration doesn’t discuss ongoing contract talks, but it’s highly unlikely the scientists and attorneys get more than the 4.5 percent across-the-board pay raise Brown negotiated with SEIU last last year. The 95,000-employee union entered those talks reminding Brown that it had poured millions of dollars and deployed an army of activists to support his successful Proposition 30 tax initiative in 2012.

But after publicly calling for across-the-board raises totaling 16 percent plus a bonus, Local 1000 settled for the more modest bump phased in over two years.

It was the first contract of the season. It sent a message to other unions whose members don’t wear a badge: If this is the best SEIU can do, don’t expect more.

“Generally, the first group to come in gets the best deal,” said Dave Gilb, a former head of California’s personnel department, and many contracts allow a union to go back to the governor if he cuts a sweeter deal down the line.

A half-dozen contracts have been negotiated since – none with bigger across-the-board raises than what SEIU bargained last summer.

The attorneys and the scientists want to break the trend. Both have sound salary data that show their members are significantly underpaid compared to public and private sector counterparts.

Ron Yank, a former state Human Resources Department director who negotiated both groups’ last contracts, said he regretted that budget worries in 2011 kept him from offering more.

“I told the scientists, ‘If we ever get money, you guys will be first in line to get something special,’” Yank recalled Wednesday. The state is better off now, but Yank left two years ago.

So here’s what the attorneys and scientists are up against: They want a better contract than what the most hefty, well-connected union received. If Brown agrees to it, other unions will give him grief because they all took an SEIU-type deal. History says the competitive-pay argument isn’t persuasive. The clock is running out.

It’s possible that one or both unions could hold out for more cash into the summer. More likely, they’ll work out out nonmonetary upgrades such as workplace improvements, such as scheduling flexibility.

Then union leaders will have to consider how to sell a less-than-ideal package to members. They might wait to show every opportunity was exhausted.

“Before an agreement can be reached,” Gilb said, “sometimes the wine has to age a little.”

About This Blog

Jon Ortiz launched The State Worker blog 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 or 916-321-1043. Twitter: @TheStateWorker.


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