Fresno County leaders, union dig in as labor strike begins

The Fresno BeeJanuary 23, 2012 

Neither Fresno County leaders nor union bosses are showing signs of backing down amid a three-day labor strike over the wages of thousands of employees.

The strike, which had about 25% of the county's 6,300 workers off the job Monday, is testing the county's ability to do business, from running a juvenile hall to providing child support.

But county officials scheduled extra help this week and on Monday reported limited disruption. All essential services, such as public safety, are being provided, they said, and the county is prepared to ride out the strike through its end on Wednesday.

"Are we being impacted? Yes," said John Navarrette, the county's top administrator. "Have we been mortally wounded? No."

Members of Service Employees International Union, many of whom protested on the sidewalks of downtown Fresno, said they had no intention of letting up. They predicted gaps in county services would become increasingly visible this week as their replacements are overwhelmed with work.

"These three days will show the services that we provide," labor representative Kevin Smith said. "It's a way to show that we've been disrespected."

Most of the 4,100 members of the county's SEIU Local 521 received pay cuts of 9% or more in December, cuts that the union claims were not fairly negotiated. County managers have said they tried to accommodate the union, but didn't have the money.

The first day of the strike caused widespread but often unseen -- and mostly minor -- hitches in county operations.

Among the areas where the toll was heaviest was social services, where food stamps, child support and other welfare programs have been halted or delayed, county officials said.

Staffing shortfalls also forced the county to close half its public library branches. Other administrative activities, such as issuing death certificates and eviction notices, were put on hold.

Perhaps the biggest scare Monday came when 90% of the correctional officers at the county's juvenile hall didn't report for the first shift. School on the campus was closed, and detainees were kept from doing many of their usual activities while managers and temporary staff were called in for backup.

"We wanted to make sure we had everything in place before we started moving minors," said Chief Probation Officer Linda Penner. But "everything came together nicely," she said.

SEIU represents rank-and-file employees in virtually every county department.

The county avoided a potential problem at the downtown jail, where guards represented by the union decided to not participate in the walk-off.

"The staff, as a majority, felt like there was nothing to gain by going out on the strike," said Eulalio Gomez, a correctional officer.

Gomez said he and others share some of the union's concerns but didn't want to see the higher jail costs that would come with the strike -- for scheduling replacement guards and forcing non-union employees to work overtime.

The guards' decision not to participate represented a blow to Monday's labor efforts. But union bosses still claimed success.

The union estimated that nearly 2,000 employees were involved in the strike. County officials pegged the number closer to 1,500.

Joan Cuadros, a secretary in the District Attorney's Office who walked off the job Monday, said deciding to skip work wasn't easy.

"We are not wealthy people. We are making a big sacrifice today," she said.

Cuadros, like many union members, said she expected a salary cut last year but not as big as the one the county gave her. She said county managers could have worked out a better deal for employees.

"The lack of negotiation is frightening," she said.

Monday's demonstrations lit up the normally subdued city center with noisy picket lines outside county offices and spirited marches at downtown landmarks. Car horns blasted in solidarity.

One demonstrator carried a sign that read: "Officer, I'd like to report a robbery. The county Board of Supervisors are robbing SEIU employees of their wages."

SEIU was joined by the California Nurses Association, which also scheduled a three-day walkout for its members this week. The nurses' union, which has made allegations against the county similar to those made by SEIU, represents about 75 health-care employees.

With neither the unions nor the county offering to make concessions, the outcome of the standoff remains unclear.

The state labor board has ordered all parties to Sacramento on Thursday and Friday to try to work out a settlement. But the talks are nonbinding.

The California Public Employment Relations Board scheduled the Sacramento hearing after issuing a complaint last week against the county for unfair labor practices.

The complaint alleges that county managers improperly reduced employee wages, didn't give negotiations time to work and sought to restrict employee protest.

The county denies the allegations.

Supervisor Phil Larson said Monday that county employees have good jobs and the best benefits in the state and simply have been demanding more than the county can afford.

"When they come back with a proposal that's acceptable, we'll talk," he said. "They haven't done that in six months."

The reporter can be reached at kalexander@fresnobee.com or (559) 441-6679.

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