The State Worker

Walking out for higher wages: More public employees decide to ‘fight back’ in California

Court reporters in Fresno.

UC hospital workers in Sacramento.

Teachers in Los Angeles.

Public employees are striking across the state in a sign that the year is shaping up to be a feisty one for labor in California government.

The biggest strike is unfolding in Los Angeles, where some 30,000 teachers walked out of class this week. They want better pay, smaller class sizes and some assurance that they won’t be cast aside for charter schools.

Smaller strikes are unfolding in county offices and courts all over California, from a community college in Sonora to crowded courts in Sacramento and Fresno.

“We’re seeing a level of activism from workers that we haven’t seen in decades,” said Steve Smith, spokesman for the California Labor Federation.

It’s hard to say exactly how many strikes are taking place. The Bureau of Labor Statistics tracks large strikes, in which 1,000 or more employees walk out, but many of the actions taking place in California are for smaller employers.

The number of large strikes declined last year, but union leaders say the smaller ones seem to be gaining traction.

Two trends seem to be driving much of the push for change, said Smith and other state labor leaders.

First, public employees say they’re straining to keep up with the state’s high cost of living. Many of them accepted contract concessions and furloughs during the Great Recession, and they’re trying to make the most of the state’s sound economy.

The average wage for California teachers is $80,600, and the average wage for striking teachers in Los Angeles is about $75,000. It’s good money, but often not enough for families to settle down in high-cost communities like L.A.

“What is steadily increasing in California is the wealth gap. We’ve got teachers in L.A. going out on strike so they can afford to live where they work,” said Kathryn Lybarger, president of AFSCME 3299, a union that represents University of California health workers. Her union went on strike in October, and its contract remains at impasse.

Second, public employee unions suffered a major financial blow in June, when the U.S. Supreme Court handed down a ruling that forbid them from charging fees to workers who did not choose to join them.

That decision, known as Janus vs. AFSCME, cost California government unions millions of dollars a year in revenue they collected in so-called fair-share fees from workers who benefited from contract negotiations but did not want to be in a labor organization.

As a result, many public employee unions are communicating more with workers and trying to demonstrate their value to employees who are no longer obligated to give them a share of their paychecks.

“In the public sector after the Janus ruling, you have unions with a much more active role in engaging membership and demonstrating why people need a union,” said Ken Jacobs, chairman of the UC Berkeley Labor Center.

At AFSCME, Lybarger said, “We had had to go all of our members and say, ‘Being a union member is now optional, so are you going to stand with your union or not? Why do you think your employer wants you to quit your union?’”

After that, Lybarger said, members “see the potential and the need to fight back.”

Government employers counter that their personnel costs are rising significantly, too.

Pension and health care costs are climbing, particularly as the California Public Employees’ Retirement System and California State Teachers’ Retirement System ask schools and government agencies to pay down their pension debts.

That tradeoff between climbing benefit costs and worker requests for raises has been at the heart of disputes between teachers and school districts in Los Angeles and in Sacramento.

Gov. Gavin Newsom’s state budget proposal would give some pension relief to schools by paying down some of their debt to CalSTRS. School districts will be able to use that money for other purposes.

Modesto, where Republicans dominate elected positions in local government, is the scene of two recent public employee strikes.

Hundreds of teachers at Yosemite Community College District walked out in November and threatened to strike again this month. This week, they ratified a contract that nets a 10 percent raise for 330 full-time and 426 part-time teachers at Modesto Junior College and Columbia College in Sonora.

“We were taken to the point of leaving classrooms because it got that bad,” said Jim Sahlman, president of the Yosemite Faculty Association said. “What we are seeing not only in education, but in other professions, is unions are demanding that people are treated with respect.”

On Wednesday, more than 200 Stanislaus County mental health and social services employees were on their ninth day of a strike for better wages and working conditions. Members of their union, SEIU Local 521, spoke for more than two hours at a board of supervisors meeting this week.

“It’s time the board of supervisors take a hard look at the crisis they are bestowing on our community by allowing this work stoppage to continue,” Kate Selover, the union chapter’s president, said in a news release.

A branch of the same union is on strike in Fresno, where about 150 superior court reporters and clerks walked off the job on Tuesday.

The union there wants to restore a 40-hour work week after accepting a shorter, 35-hour work week in a past contract. It argues the court’s contract offer does not keep up with cost-of-living increases.

“When somebody’s paycheck is going to go backwards, that’s not fair,” chapter President Denise Dedmon told The Fresno Bee.