The State Worker

The State Worker: What’s next after contract-talk impasse?

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

The I-word – “impasse” – has butted in on contract talks between Gov. Jerry Brown and a state employees’ union that has been without a labor agreement for more than a year.

The Public Employment Relations Board, which decides when union negotiations have deadlocked, recently put that stamp on negotiations between the governor and the International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39. The union represents 850 state workers who run power and water systems at hundreds of state facilities, from the Capitol to Calipatria State Prison to China Camp State Park.

For years, their pay has lagged by 30 percent or more the wages for similar jobs in federal and local governments, and the private sector. The union says the gap is so severe that the state struggles to recruit and retain workers that literally keep the air conditioning running and toilets flushing. Brown hasn’t budged from offering the same 4.5 percent salary increase given to SEIU Local 1000 and several other unions.

Last month, the operating engineers union rejected the deal and voted to authorize a strike. Then it filed for and won a declaration of impasse. So what’s next?

The union and Brown administration have agreed to mediation, a labor relations equivalent to marriage counseling. That could go on for months.

If mediation fails, both sides face peril.

The governor could impose terms. That 4.5 percent raise could be forced on them, but it’s more likely Brown would just hold their pay where it is.

The union also would lose its voice on non-salary matters.

That happened to the 30,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association in 2007 when talks with then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger broke down. The prison officers received no raises; almost no one did during those lean years. But when health insurance premiums increased, the state upped its contributions for everyone except prison and parole officers. They had to pick up the difference.

The administration has to be wary, however, because the operating engineers are now free to strike.

No state-worker union has walked out in the 37 years that they’ve been organized, but strike rumors have set officials on edge before, said Tim Yeung, a former state labor attorney now in private practice. During the early 1990s when Gov. Pete Wilson was pushing for state labor changes, labor talks ground to a halt.

“There were a lot of rumors about potential work actions,” Yeung said, but nothing happened.

A court might step in if a walkout threatens public health or safety, but such a ruling would be narrow. Engineers that keep prisons running might be prohibited from a strike. An engineer who runs air conditioning for the Capitol? Well ...

You can bet that the Brown administration started thinking about that when the I-word elbowed its way into deadlocked contract talks.

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