A week after Santa Clara County strike began, union to make a new offer and suspend strike
A group of county workers represented by SEIU Local 521 picketed outside the county's 911 dispatch center on Saturday Oct. 5, 2019. Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 521.

One week after hundreds of Santa Clara County service workers left their jobs for a massive strike, union leaders prepared a new offer for the Board of Supervisors to consider, potentially ending the standoff that began six months ago.

That development comes after a week of work stoppages, pickets and other strike actions across county departments.

County Executive Jeff Smith told San José Spotlight the county expects to receive a proposal from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 by the end of the day Wednesday. The union represents 12,000 employees, and says as many as 1,000 workers have joined the picket lines on any given day since last Wednesday, including employees from social services, roads, parks, public health, courts and 911 dispatchers.

Smith said he and the supervisors have a closed-session meeting scheduled Saturday to consider the offer. Both sides had planned to sit down at the negotiating table on Wednesday morning, Smith added, but agreed to postpone the bargaining session so that the union’s new offer could be shared with the supervisors.

In the meantime, union leaders late Wednesday announced they’ll temporarily suspend the strike because of the planned PG&E power shutdown, which impacts more than 38,000 people countywide, and led to the declaration of a local emergency. The decision, leaders said, was sparked by “our concern for public safety” and a desire to support residents, but they warned that members will be ready to return to the picket lines “at moment’s notice.”

Local 521 Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez declined to elaborate on the negotiations with the county. Asked about a pending offer mentioned by Smith, Mendez wrote: “I cannot confirm anything at this time.”

The union has been mum about its demands since members voted to strike back in August — although officials said their demand for higher pay and benefits is secondary to concerns about working conditions and providing high quality services to the community.

This strike is the first time in 40 years that county workers have walked off the job to protest unfair labor practices. Members of the local voted to strike in 2011 and again in 2015, but the disputes were resolved before employees actually stopped work.

This year, both sides agreed three weeks ago to allow workers who do jobs essential to public health and safety to cross picket lines and continue to work during the strike.

“This time there was agreement that services critical to life and limb should not be interrupted and in general there has been compliance with that agreement,” Smith said.

About 1,200 workers, including some in county jails and probation offices, hospital emergency room staff and 911 dispatchers, were deemed essential and continued to work during the strike.

But some 911 dispatchers, such as Garrett Allen, joined their striking colleagues before or after work.

“We want to show our support for SEIU, but we also have lives to save,” said Allen, 33, who joined the picket lines Saturday at 7 a.m. after a 10-hour overnight shift.

Ten hour shifts are the norm for 911 dispatchers, but Allen says mandatory overtime means he and his colleagues routinely work shifts lasting up to 14 hours. Allen estimates that four out of five, like him, commute from outside of Santa Clara County.

Allen lives in Livermore with his wife and their nine-month-old daughter. That’s a 45-minute commute for him each way. Some of his colleagues live as far as Merced and Los Banos.

“They’ll come in on a 90-minute drive, do a 14-hour shift, drive 90 minutes back and that only leaves seven hours between leaving for work again,” Allen said.

Since last week, workers across the county have stopped work to join the picket lines to protest what the union says are unfair labor practices by the county. Striking workers, including members of the union’s negotiating team, say they stopped work to draw attention to difficult and sometimes dangerous conditions for workers and the county residents they serve — particularly within the Department of Family and Children’s Services.

But Smith says the union’s 15-count unfair labor practices complaint is “bogus,” and “ginned up” by labor leaders to give legal justification for strike. On Friday, the county filed its own unfair labor practices complaint against the union with the California Public Employee Relations Board (PERB).

“The real reason for the strike is monetary,” Smith said. “We should be negotiating on that.”

But the process for investigating such complaints is complicated and time-consuming, said South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field.

“It takes enough time that it is quite likely that the strike will be resolved before the PERB action is,” Field said.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at afhutton.sjspotlight@gmail.com or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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