On verge of strike, Santa Clara County workers swarm CEO’s office
Scores of Santa Clara County service workers filled the plaza at the County Government Center on Thursday. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Thousands of Santa Clara County service workers including hospital employees, social workers, parks maintenance staff and employees at the county jails are set to strike for the first time in almost 40 years — and the workers marched straight up to County Executive Officer Jeff Smith’s office on Thursday to tell him in person.

The protest action against Smith is the latest salvo in a fight between county administrators and workers over a contract they’ve been negotiating for more than six months. Union leaders say they’ll continue to send negotiators to the bargaining table until an agreement is reached — but with the two sides so far apart, a strike seems inevitable now, leaders said.

“We represent the broadest spectrum of workers anywhere in the United States and we are proud of it,” said Riko Mendez, chief elected officer of Service Employees International Union Local 521, the union that represents more than 11,000 county workers. “We are here to let the world know something very important. Brothers and sisters, we’re going on strike.”

Santa Clara County workers represented by SEIU Local 521 voted to strike in August. That move was backed by the South Bay Labor Council this month. The union says its workers are striking to compel the county to invest in critical services such as health care and child care.

“It is a complete shame that in one of the most progressive and innovative counties in the country, our county leaders have turned their backs on our future,” said Kathleen Harrison, a psychiatric social worker at the Receiving Assessment Intake Center in the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. “I am striking with my Santa Clara County colleagues because I did not get into this work to cash checks. I did so to ensure that our community has the necessary tools to live healthy and prosperous lives.”

Smith addressed the group in the reception area of his 11th floor office and the exchange was confrontational, but he told San José Spotlight he was still confident that the two sides would resolve their differences.

“I still feel like we can reach an agreement,” Smith said in an interview after the protest. “Right now, from the workers perspective, it probably doesn’t feel like that but I also know from experience that in previous negotiations that it is normal to have a period of time when everyone is very emotionally concerned and it seems like there is no way to come to an agreement — but I am confident that we will be able to negotiate a fair contract.”

The sticking point, Smith says, is the different perspectives each side brings to the table. The county executive said he has to the balance the needs of the community and the interests of county workers against fiscal responsibility.

“I think it’s fair to say without violating any secrecy agreements that it has been challenging to get close together, mostly because there are differences of opinion about future revenue projections,” he added. “We as a county are very concerned about future economic outcomes — we need to make sure that we have a fair contract, but it needs to be sustainable.”

Last week in another demonstration, the union staged an act of civil disobedience that resulted in 14 of its members being arrested for blocking traffic in East San Jose to protest the county’s plans to close the San Jose Family Resource Center — which provides social work services, mostly to members of immigrant communities who have been caught up in the county’s court system. Smith said the center is being moved to the county’s Social Services Agency campus downtown because the landlord is evicting them.

“We know we’re ready to go on strike,” said Mullissa Willette, an investigator with the county assessor’s office and First Vice President of Local 521. “There’s just one more thing that we need to do today. We need to let Jeff Smith know why we are going on strike. We want to let him know that we’re not going to stand by while another child gets hurt at the (center) and we demand adequate facilities.”

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

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