The State Worker

The State Worker: Good times, tough contract talks

The governor on Tuesday won a staredown with state scientists when their union announced they had accepted a labor contract after months of rancor.

The ratification sent a signal to nearly a dozen other unions in contract talks: When you get an offer, it won’t improve even if you stamp your feet.

The deal ratified by three-quarters of voting members in the California Association of Professional Scientists includes a total 15 percent in salary increases over three years. A piece of those raises is offset by a new requirement that the roughly 3,000 employees contribute to a retiree health benefits fund. The state will match the contributions, which incrementally increase to a total 2.8 percent of salary by mid-2019.

Union bargaining chair Scott Bauer’s press statement barely fogged the mirror, calling the deal an “interim step in our quest for full salary equity.”

Department of Human Resources spokesman Jim Zamora declined to comment.

The scientists have long complained their pay lags the market by up to 30 percent. During last year’s talks, they staged rallies and initiated petition drives. Brown offered a deal; 70 percent of the scientists rejected it. Talks restarted, but it was clear the governor wouldn’t budge. On Tuesday the members accepted the agreement, word for word, they had earlier rejected.

Versions of the take-it-or-leave-it scenario will likely play out as unions with expired or expiring contracts try to pressure Brown for bigger raises than he wants to offer. Unions will argue that in bad times their combined 200,000 or so members endured years of furloughs and more work as hiring freezes and mass retirements drained the workforce by about 10 percent. Over the years, most have received modest raises that generally didn’t keep up with inflation.

If they can’t get a significant raise when the state budget is flush, they’ll ask, then when?

“It’s a conundrum in any economic situation,” said Mike Genest, finance director under former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, because bad times always follow good times.

During budget crisis years, the scientists didn’t rally as they did several times in 2015. And now the International Union of Operating Engineers Unit 12, which represents 12,000 crafts workers, says it will rally several hundred of its members on Friday morning outside Brown’s labor department offices.

They’re unhappy that Brown wants Unit 12 members to incrementally pay up to 4.6 percent of wages for retiree health by 2019 while giving raises totaling just 7 percent this year and next. With anticipated health insurance premium hikes, union director Tim Neep said Brown’s offer puts his members in the hole.

Meanwhile, their wages lag the market by up to 25 percent, Neep said, so at minimum he’s looking for something around 12 percent “to move us forward.”

As for the rally, Neep said, “We’re just looking for a little recognition.”