Just before Labor Day, Santa Clara County service workers poised to strike

A dispute between workers and management over pay, benefits and working conditions could grind services in Santa Clara County to a halt — just as the nation is set to celebrate the labor movement’s contribution to American society.

County workers are threatening to strike less than a week before Labor Day. The employees run the gamut from clerical and social workers to health care professionals and blue-collar jobs at the county jail. And more than 10,000 of them are represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521.

“Since April 2019, Santa Clara County management has refused to deal fairly with over 11,000 County workers who are SEIU 521 members,” according to a news release from the union. “On Friday, August 23, members counted thousands of ballots where our bargaining team was authorized to call a strike if we do not see any significant movement from the County.”

The union says the county employees it represents have been working without a contract since June — and 97% of its members who cast ballots over the past two weeks voted to strike. But union leaders say they are still negotiating with the county.

“We are still bargaining in good faith,” SEIU Local 521 Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez said.

In a statement provided to San José Spotlight on Wednesday, the union official added “Though we have authorized a strike to ensure that the county invests in critical services for children, seniors, and low-income people of color, we hope that it will not come to that. We will update you later in the week.”

Meanwhile, with Labor Day coming up on Monday, County Executive Jeff Smith says his office is also hoping to avoid a strike.

“We are concerned about the unfavorable impact a work stoppage may cause to employees, families, and the residents that count on us to serve them daily,” Smith said.

However, the county executive noted there is still substantial difference between the union’s proposed contract and what Santa Clara is offering. If the two sides can’t bridge the gap, a strike of thousands of county employees could be inevitable, halting services in departments such as Parks and Recreation, Facilities and Fleet maintenance, the library and county hospitals — including St. Louise Regional, O’Connor Hospital and the Santa Clara Valley Medical Center.

The county says its contract negotiators are offering a 12.5% increase to Local 521 members over the course of five years. The union declined to discuss precisely what it wants for its workers.

“Unfortunately, the current contract proposal from SEIU is not a reasonable option because it’s not even close to something the county can afford,” Smith continued. “We will continue to meet in good faith at the bargaining table and we are open to discussing options that bring us closer to a contract that works for everyone.”

But the union says its workers are struggling to make ends meet, in part because of the high cost of living in Silicon Valley.

“We work in our county’s hospitals, jails, maintenance yards, streets, offices, in the homes of our most vulnerable residents, and beyond,” the union’s news release says. “We know firsthand how people are struggling. Due to the skyrocketing costs of housing and living in the Silicon Valley, workers like us who provide critical services are suffering too.”

Just south of the Bay Area, Local 521 workers in Monterey County are also preparing to strike.

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

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