Sacramento County court workers end one-day strike, return to bargaining table

Sacramento Superior Court employees announced Tuesday afternoon they would go back on the job after a one-day strike halted most court operations and sent juries and defendants home earlier in the day.

“As a result of today’s strike, the court and (the union) have been in contact and negotiations are continuing,” said John Bonilla of United Public Employees, which represents the court’s employees. “As a show of good faith we are asking our members to return to work while we continue to negotiate.”

Courts will likely resume normal operations Wednesday, but throughout the day Tuesday, hundreds of employees picketed in front of the main courthouse and other court locations in Sacramento, effectively stopping operations.

Earlier Tuesday, Bonilla said the goal was to “shut the courts down.”

“We’re here to prove our worth. It’s not just the judges who make the court turn,” said Bonilla. “The wheels of justice don’t turn without us.”

UPE said on its website that Superior Court employees have been working without a contract since Sept. 31, and are seeking a “fair and livable wage” due to the rising cost of living, including higher rents, in the Sacramento region.

“We’ve been bargaining since May with no success — in a sense we’ve been bargaining with ourselves,” Bonilla said. “All we’re here to do is give a livable wage for our workers, give them some dignity in the workplace, and the courts don’t seem to want to meet us there in the middle. We’re here to kind of will them back to the table in hopes of getting a contract for our folks.”

In a prepared statement, Superior Court officials said the court “values its employees” and is “working to resolve the matter as expeditiously as possible.”

“The contract offer … is fair and consistent with other trial courts and the County of Sacramento,” the statement read, adding that the court “must be financially prudent and not overextend to keep the lights on.”

Denise Lashley, a courtroom clerk, was one of the picketers Tuesday. She has worked 29 years in the court system.

“We’re not doing this because we want to. We’re doing this because they’re not fair to us,” Lashley said. “Employees here have taken a lot of cuts. We’re working with less employees than we ever had before and we’re fed up. We want them to do what’s fair.”

She was joined on the picket line by Michele Harwell of Citrus Heights who has worked in the county’s downtown courthouse for about four years. On Tuesday, she bundled up her 2-year-old daughter and walked the city block around the courthouse in the early morning chill.

“I want them to see the families they’re impacting,” said Harwell, a single mother of three. “Nothing’s going to change without us going on strike. I’m a single mom. I’m struggling. We’re asking to be made whole. We gave to this court and they’ve given nothing to us. Everyone’s just tired.”

Somera said UPE represents about two-thirds of the Superior Court’s 600 employees, including deputy clerks, court reporters, court attendants, judicial assistants and others. “Pretty much everything except the supervisors,” Somera said.

Somera said he did not have an exact count, but that more than 80 percent of the union’s 411 members walked out Tuesday morning. Somera said higher participation was expected later in the day.

Sacramento Superior Court spokeswoman Kim Pedersen said Tuesday morning courts would stay open despite the strike, but it was clearly having a big impact by afternoon.

In Sacramento Superior Court Judge Sharon Lueras’ fifth-floor courtroom, with staff on the strike line, jurors hearing a rape case were sent home for the day.

The cancellation of cases was a joy to Melissa Hernandez, who beamed, greeting striking workers outside the courthouse with choruses of “Thank you.”

The Sacramento woman was running late to her Tuesday hearing only to find that her matter was put off by Tuesday’s labor action. The judge told her the matter will be postponed until February, giving her more time to fight her case, she said.

“This was a surprise. They saved me,” Hernandez said, then grew serious, saying she supported the workers dealing with a growing Sacramento County caseload.