The State Worker

The State Worker: Why 1,006 votes signal trouble for California labor talks

California Gov. Jerry Brown
California Gov. Jerry Brown

Little union, huge deal.

Earlier this month, the 3,000-member California Association of Professional Scientists nixed a three-year contract offer from Gov. Jerry Brown that included 15 percent in raises and a new requirement that members pay nearly 3 percent of salary into a health benefits fund for retirees.

Of the 1,388 scientists who voted, 1,006 gave it thumbs down, because the agreement still left their pay 15 percent or more under market.

The scientists make up just 1.6 percent of California’s 180,000 unionized state employees, so what’s the big deal?

Here’s the buzz among state labor insiders:

▪ Although the state’s unionized employees are split into 21 bargaining units that independently negotiate, early contract agreements usually set parameters for those that follow. It’s generally agreed that the scientists, who no one disputes are severely underpaid, rejected one of the best offers since the virtual blank-paycheck days of the Gray Davis administration.

Most unions’ contracts have expired or will expire next summer. Brown’s offer to the scientists will put extra pressure from members on their negotiators to deliver big raises that may not be realistic.

▪ The new retiree-health contribution (which the state will match) is a must-have for Brown, but the scientists’ agreement reveals how it adds new bargaining complexities. The percentage the administration proposed was based on actuarial estimates of how much money the fund needs to cover benefits in the future, given the demographics and pay of the scientists’ bargaining unit.

But the retiree-medical contributions are regressive: Lower-wage earners contribute more of their income for the same future insurance benefit.

The scientists didn’t like terms that would have required they eventually pay 2.8 percent of their salary into the fund, while a new contract for engineers requires they pay just 2 percent. A big reason for the difference: Engineers on average make close to $95,000 per year, about $35,000 more than scientists. So the engineers’ contribution as a percentage of wages is less than the scientists’ contribution.

Tens of thousands of state workers make far less. Retiree health contributions could easily take a 6 percent bite out of office clerks’ pay, for example. How will that play when their bargaining unit votes on a new contract?

▪ David Miller, the president of the scientists’ union, notes that annual raises last year to his members’ managers averaged $42,000 to comply with a like-pay for like-work court ruling. Rank-and-file scientists thought they’d be next. The bargained agreement didn’t come close.

“If the governor believes pay equity is the right thing for supervisors and managers ... then it ought to be the right thing for rank-and-file scientists,” Miller said.

The governor could take a different view. The scientists spurned some of the biggest bargained salary increases in the past dozen years. What signal would it send the other unions if he rewards rejection?