The State Worker

Some California workers reject SEIU contract, revealing divide in state’s largest union

A small but significant group within state government’s largest union rejected a proposed contract with the state Tuesday, revealing a split over a three-year SEIU Local 1000 agreement that includes a major new health care perk.

A group of engineering and scientific technicians rejected the contract, which includes a 7 percent raise and a health insurance stipend worth about $3,100 per year.

The group’s highly unusual rejection of an agreement between union leaders and the governor’s bargaining team sent union leaders scrambling to respond after ballots were counted Tuesday afternoon. The rejection could mean that the unit of Local 1000 that rejected the contract will not get new raises and benefits while the rest of the union would.

“This is new territory for us,” Local 1000 President Yvonne Walker said Wednesday. “We’ve never been in this situation before, so we’re making the path as we walk.”

By Wednesday afternoon, an elected council of union leaders representing the unit that rejected the contract made plans for a do-over.

Ann Hutson, the unit’s vice chairwoman, said leaders chose to hold another vote because the contract was rejected by a narrow margin. The next vote must take place by Oct. 13.

Hutson said members were misinformed about the contract, and some lacked access to information at sites dispersed around the state.

The group that rejected the contract makes up one of nine bargaining units in the union. Each unit represents a collection of similar job occupations. One Local 1000 bargaining unit, for instance, represents custodians. Another represents nurses.

Bargaining Unit 11 represents about 2,800 workers, around half of whom are union members eligible to vote on contracts.

The other eight bargaining units, making up the rest of the 100,000 workers the union collectively represents, each voted to approve the contract.

What’s in the contract

In addition to the 7 percent raise and the health insurance stipend, the contract increases wages to $15 per hour for workers who make less than that starting next year.

The contract also increases wages for workers who make between $15 and $18 per hour as a side effect of the minimum wage increase, and it includes a range of special salary adjustments for specific classifications of workers.

The workers in the unit work for departments such as Caltrans, the Department of Fish and Game, the Department of Water Resources, and the Department of Food and Agriculture. Many inspect food, boats, medicine and other consumer products. Some work in labs. They made an average of about $57,000 per year in 2014, according to the last published CalHR survey of their salaries.

The unit rejected the agreement on a vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, according to Local 1000’s vote tally. It did not release the number of people who cast ballots.

Nearly half of the job classifications within the unit received special salary adjustments of 5 percent. But a group of transportation engineering technicians, including around 400 union members, didn’t.

“That classification was completely left out,” said Tony Owens, the union’s vice president of bargaining. “I think that’s the biggest bone to pick.”

SEIU leaders at odds

Walker blamed the union’s three vice presidents, who were elected on a separate ticket from Walker last year, for steering members toward a “no” vote.

“It is unfortunate that some leaders within our organization have chosen to take advantage of a group of members as part of a political strategy that hurts people’s lives and families,” Walker said in a statement.

Tensions between the vice presidents and Walker have persisted since the May 2018 election, with the vice presidents insisting the union’s bylaws give them more power and autonomy than Walker believes is warranted.

“It’s awful, because you can’t say that the people exercised their right but at the same time say it was a political move,” Owens responded Wednesday. “That doesn’t make any sense.”

There is little precedent for what happens when a bargaining unit rejects a contract agreement. During Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s term, one of Local 1000’s bargaining unit teams rejected a contract, so it didn’t go to members for a vote, Walker said.

In that case, the unit never received a health insurance benefit the rest of the union did receive — an 80/20 premium split, with the state paying 80 percent, she said.

Hutson, the Unit 11 vice chairwoman, said the unit’s members would not be able to negotiate another contract until the three-year contract expires, and that its represented workers would not receive the general salary increases or other benefits in the contract.

Owens has expressed frustration at not being able to play a bigger role in the bargaining process due to the divisions with Walker.

“It’s just sad that that’s where we’ve gotten to,” he said. “A leader is supposed to accept responsibility for an organization, how we move forward.”

Walker said she accepts some responsibility for the Unit 11 outcome.

“I thought I delivered the message, not only to all of our members, but in particular the (transportation engineering technicians). I thought I delivered the message, but I’m going to have to own it – I didn’t deliver the message I thought I did,” she said. “I’m going to have to own that and find a better way forward.”

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