Contract gamble: California state workers who voted down raise want return to bargaining

California state workers who rejected their union’s proposed contract last week took a gamble, betting they could get a better deal by returning to the bargaining table in the months to come.

Their vote put at risk an extra $3,000 per year they get from a new health care perk and a 7 percent raise over three years, not just for themselves but for hundreds of other workers grouped with them under the state’s collective bargaining system.

This week, a do-over vote organized by SEIU Local 1000 leaders is testing the resolve of those who voted against the deal while giving those who didn’t vote another chance to do so.

Among those voting no was Stockton construction inspector Russ Lake, who has been frustrated for three decades with what he considers unfair pay for his work.

He is classified as a transportation engineering technician, a position with many of the same responsibilities as a state engineer but which doesn’t require an engineering degree. The technicians, thought to be responsible for swinging last week’s vote to no, have been watching their salaries grow at a slower clip than state engineers’ salaries for years.

“We voted no based on feeling we were excluded from this contract,” he said.

Carmina Castaneda, a Folsom State Prison lab assistant, voted yes.

“We want to be part of those benefits, have part of the raise, have part of everything they’re offering,” Castaneda said.

Castaneda and Lake are part of the same bargaining unit, a group of workers with loosely similar job titles the state lumps together for collective bargaining. Their unit, one of nine represented by Local 1000, includes about 2,800 workers in about 100 job classifications who inspect food, trucks, boats and construction projects and work in labs, farms, fish hatcheries and elsewhere. Their unit was the only one to reject the contract.

The rejection has sent the state’s largest union into uncharted territory. Union leaders announced the re-vote last week, citing the close 52 percent to 48 percent result — along with misinformation they say was circulating during voting — as the justification. The re-vote is taking place now through Saturday at about 200 work sites around the state.

The contract proposal includes a 7 percent general salary increase over three years, a $3,100-per-year health insurance stipend and special raises for nearly half of the workers in the unit — but not for transportation engineering technicians.

Bargaining for more

The technicians said in interviews that they want the state and the union to return to the bargaining table to try to get them a better deal. Their thinking goes that if a better deal can’t be reached, they could fall back on the deal they rejected last week, Lake said.

Yvonne Walker, the union’s president, said in an interview last week she doesn’t think that’s how it will go.

“I believe that if they do get a deal subsequent to the no vote, it will be worse than what is on the table right now,” Walker said before the re-vote had been announced.

She said the union, without the force of its full membership to bargain for the one unit, might not be able to get any deal, which would leave the unit working under its current contract with no new raises.

The outcome of a return to the bargaining table would ultimately come down to how Gov. Gavin Newsom’s negotiators respond to the situation. Willingness to sweeten a contract after a no vote could set a precedent that would be unfavorable for the state, while giving the workers nothing could impact morale and decisions about whether to remain in state service.

The union’s current contract expires in January. If the union and the state resume bargaining and reach a new deal for Unit 11, the Legislature — which is on recess until January — would have to approve it.

In addition to the proposal’s health care stipend and general salary increase, the contract raises all workers’ wages to $15 per hour next year and gives an associated raise to people who make $15 to $18 per hour. The less a worker makes, the better the contract is for them. Some workers in the unit would get raises of around 20 percent under the deal.

“The (health insurance) stipend could have helped a lot of us because of the increase in the premiums we pay,” said Gilsen Franco, a phlebotomist who works at a state prison in Stockton and is on the Unit 11 bargaining team. “A lot of them can’t afford it.”

There are 649 transportation engineering technicians among the roughly 2,800 workers in Unit 11. As of August, 378 of the technicians were dues-paying members eligible to vote on contracts.

A handful of the technicians called The Bee to say they plan to vote no again. The union is calling people in the unit to encourage them to get out and vote. Its website urges them to vote yes.

Similar pay for similar work

The transportation engineering technicians say they perform much of the same work as engineers, but are paid less.

The technicians’ base salaries range from about $37,000 to $67,000 per year, while base salaries for civil transportation engineers go from about $66,000 to $125,000.

While they’re not asking for the same pay as engineers, they’ve seen the gap between their salaries grow over the years. They want a special salary increase.

The governor’s office has generally been willing to consider special raises for job classifications where state workers make less than their local, federal and private counterparts, and in cases where a job classification has a high vacancy rate — typically at least 20 or 30 percent.

The transportation engineering technician classification had a vacancy rate of about 15 percent as of March, according to CalHR. A 2014 salary survey showed that while the technicians’ wages were slightly lower than their counterparts’, their total benefit package was about equivalent.

Jeryl Douglas, a technician based in Fresno, said the state’s methodology for surveying technician salaries isn’t as rigorous as its method of surveying salaries for state engineers, which the state does every year.

“We’ve been neglected and pushed aside by CalHR for long enough,” Douglas said.

John Warrick, a Caltrans materials and research engineering associate specialist who works in Santa Fe Springs, said he had left the union a few years ago but rejoined to vote yes in the re-vote.

Warrick said he had been on a bargaining team before leaving the union.

“I’ve been down the same road they’re down,” he said. “But the bargaining team put it out there. I figured that some money is better than no money.”

Related stories from Fresno Bee

Wes Venteicher anchors The Bee’s popular State Worker coverage in the newspaper’s Capitol Bureau. He covers taxes, pensions, unions, state spending and California government. A Montana native, he reported on health care and politics in Chicago and Pittsburgh before joining The Bee in 2018.