The State Worker

The State Worker: The bigger meaning of state labor contracts

Jon Ortiz
Jon Ortiz

After going more than a year without contracts, unions representing state attorneys, scientists and building equipment operators will soon announce how their members voted on new offers from Gov. Jerry Brown. A few observations about the deals:

• Contract talks between the scientists and the building operators became tense this year, and members of both unions rejected pacts that Brown offered. The building operators, who run state facilities’ water, heating and cooling systems, even threatened to strike. Meanwhile, the attorneys union also made a pitch for higher pay. No one disagrees that all three groups are relatively underpaid.

All three groups hoped for double-digit percentage raises, or at least a firm path to pay parity with counterparts in private or public sectors. All eventually settled for raises of 4.5 percent or less between now and July 1, 2015.

That underscores the Democratic governor’s advantage as he appears to be cruising into re-election. He’s popular. He’s powerful. And the unions have to deal with him. It’s not like they can support his outgunned GOP opponent Neel Kashkari.

Need proof? While they battled at the bargaining table, all three holdout unions each poured $54,400 into Brown’s campaign war chest, the max contribution allowed by law.

• The scientists receive a $1,000 signing bonus if they ratify the proposed contract. The operating engineers get $250. The attorneys union didn’t bargain a signing bonus.

“It’s an ‘incentive’ to get the unions to ratify,” former state Human Resources Director Dave Gilb said. “Very common.”

The one-time payments put more cash in employees’ pockets without an open-ended commitment to raises, which likely makes them attractive to the frugal Brown, Gilb said. And unlike a pay hike, the bonuses don’t count toward employees’ pensions.

• A provision in the attorneys’ proposed contract would create two new job classifications in state government, an Administrative Law Judge III and an Attorney V.

But as a state analysis of the contract proposal points out, the new classifications are a sort of pay raise in disguise, since employees promoted into those new positions would earn between $7,000 and $9,000 per year more, according to a recent state analysis of the contract.

Right now, the highest-paid administrative law judges and attorneys who could be promoted earn $9,900 per month and $10,900 per month, respectively.

If departments elevate just half the eligible employees into the new positions, state costs would increase by more than $10 million annually, the nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office figures. Brown’s cost estimate of the attorneys’ contract doesn’t factor in that expense.

There’s no guarantee. Any time the state creates a new job classification, it goes to the constitutionally independent State Personnel Board, which can approve or reject it.