The State Worker

The State Worker: State scientists face labor contract test

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

It’s test time for California’s 3,000 state government scientists.

Last week, the five-member bargaining team for the California Association of Professional Scientists reached a tentative agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown. It gives the union’s members a $1,000 bonus if they ratify the contract and 3 percent raise next July 1, when the deal expires.

Then on Wednesday the Brown administration signed orders for 570 scientist supervisors and managers to receive pay raises of up to 42 percent, a cost of $24.4 million for this year alone.

(About 3,500 state engineering supervisors get an 8 percent raise under the terms of the same administrative order. Total first-year cost: $32 million.)

Although the state owes the money from losing a pay parity lawsuit filed on behalf of those employees years ago, some rank-and-file scientists are sure to see Brown’s contract offer as a comparative insult. What’s more, the union rank and file recently rejected a contract that offered more money than the current tentative agreement.

If the scientists reject the contract, it could create a leadership crisis for the union. Some frustrated members openly talk about tearing down the organization and booting out both their board and the union’s consulting firm, Blanning & Baker Associates.

Chris Voight, the union’s staff director, says that members should take the deal. Yes, it settles for less money than the total 4.5 percent raise in the rejected contract, he said, but it also contains provisions that promise a massive change in how scientists’ jobs are classified and higher pay.

It’s also a short-term deal that gets the union into a different bargaining cycle than SEIU Local 1000, the 95,000-employee union whose current contract contains a 4.5 percent raise that essentially set a ceiling for other state unions. That deal expires in 2016.

And what about those big management raises?

“The end game is to get the equivalent for rank and file,” Voight said. “And it beats the alternative, which is no agreement at all.”

No one denies that the scientists earn at least 30 percent less than local government counterparts. State engineers doing comparable work make more, too. The former head of state human resources, Ron Yank, told the scientists during bargaining talks a few years ago that the administration would do “something special” for them when the state was fiscally sound.

Some scientists think now is the time to hold Brown to that promise.

“I hear from a lot of people who feel underrepresented. They think they should be getting higher pay like supervisors,” said Christina Hodgkinson, a scientist who works for the Department of Public Health’s massive Richmond facility.

She’s not sure how she’ll vote when her ratification ballot comes in the mail next week. Her advice to colleagues: “Try not to vote your anger and frustrations. Be good scientists and think clearly and objectively.”

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