The State Worker

The State Worker: Engineers union says it’s fed up

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

A disgruntled state union is talking strike, but will it happen?

Steve Crouch, who negotiates for 850 or so state building operators and water-system engineers, says contract talks over pay have stalled. Earlier this month he asked the Brown administration for its last, best and final offer to take his members for a vote, Crouch said, along with a ballot to authorize a strike if the deal isn’t ratified.

The administration didn’t want to talk to this column about it.

“Out of respect for the process,” Department of Human Resources spokeswoman Pat McConahay said, “we don’t comment on active negotiations.”

Private businesses and local governments are poaching International Union of Operating Engineers Bargaining Local 39 members, who run massive building power systems and water-processing plants. Vacancies are running high, so the state is bringing in higher-priced contractors to keep lights on and water flowing. Mandated overtime is common.

“They’re getting burned out,” Crouch said.

A journeyman stationary engineer with the state starts at about $30 per hour, compared with $35 per hour with the city of Sacramento or $36 per hour with Sacramento County, according to wage comparisons run by the union. The private sector pays even more, Crouch said.

The local has been bargaining with Gov. Jerry Brown’s Department of Human Resources since mid-2013. The administration last fall offered a deferred 3.3 percent raise. Meanwhile, Brown agreed to raises of up to 37 percent for about 750 hard-to-replace State Water Project employees covered by another operating engineers local and a 7.5 percent bump for some DMV employees.

Crouch looked at the DMV raise in particular and wondered why Brown isn’t offering more to Local 39.

“We’ve told members that we’ve picked this contract,” Crouch said, to make a lasting change after years of what he says are uncompetitive wages.

Many public-employee contracts contain a no-strike provision in return for terms that keep expired contracts in effect until a new deal is in place. That didn’t keep a union representing roughly 13,000 University of California hospital employees from going on strike three times within the last year after its contract talks bogged down.

That union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, planned a fourth strike but called it off this week after reaching an agreement.

Crouch said Wednesday that Local 39 is prepared to “engage in an AFSCME-type action,” if talks continued to stall. He pointed out that other operating engineers locals have staged actions against cities and businesses: “Strikes are not uncommon in our union.”

It would be a first for employees under gubernatorial authority and, ironically, during the watch of the governor who signed the law that allowed state workers to organize.