The State Worker

California state maintenance workers reject deal, authorize strike

Gov. Jerry Brown, in his office at the Capitol in Sacramento, on June 30, 2016.
Gov. Jerry Brown, in his office at the Capitol in Sacramento, on June 30, 2016.

Rank-and-file members of the California state maintenance workers’ union have voted overwhelmingly to reject a tentative agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown and authorize a strike, union officials said Thursday.

The deal would have increased workers’ pay 10 percent through 2019, but would have required them to pay nearly half of the increase back toward retiree health benefits. The nonpartisan Legislative Analyst’s Office reported that the tentative deal would have increased payroll and benefit costs to taxpayers more than any deal with Unit 12 since at least 2005.

The International Union of Operating Engineers Unit 12 represents approximately 12,000 state maintenance workers from electricians and window cleaners to aqueduct construction workers and truck drivers. Union officials would not say how many members voted, but reported that 67 percent of those voting rejected the deal.

The rejection sends both sides back to the bargaining table. If those talks break down and the bargaining reaches an impasse, the union would be authorized to conduct a strike, although there are no immediate plans for a strike, said Tim Neep, the director of Unit 12 and chief negotiator for the union. He said workers’ willingness to go without pay is a sign of their dissatisfaction with the agreement.

“I did not believe (the tentative deal) would pass through the membership. ... I saw it coming, and I warned the state about it possibly not ratifying,” Neep said. A representative for the California Department of Human Resources declined to comment on the recent developments.

A key point of disagreement is how much state employees should contribute to retiree health benefits. Brown wants workers to pay more toward the ballooning unfunded tab of benefit costs, with the state matching the contributions. At the beginning of the year, the state was obligated to pay $74 billion in unfunded benefits, and that number will only grow as more state employees retire.

Unions have expressed concern that higher benefit contributions are swallowing up workers’ pay increases. Following years of budget cuts and furloughs, Neep said that workers felt they weren’t seeing more money in their paychecks.

Past negotiations, he said, “didn’t put an extra dollar in your pocket to go buy ... bread. ... These people aren’t looking for the moon, but they are looking for money in their pockets. They have to deal with inflation and they have families to take care of.”

According to a 2015 Sacramento Bee state payroll analysis, the median annual pay for Unit 12 members was $48,404. Neep said the pay levels are “behind the times” compared to the private sector.

The rejected agreement was reached at the end of May. It was a product of months of talks and around 35 negotiation sessions between Unit 12 and the state.

The union’s contract expired July 1, 2015, and the new agreement would have retroactively covered from that date until July 1, 2019.

Rachel Cohrs: 916-321-1046, @rachelcohrs