San Jose and unions at odds over program cuts
San Jose workers prepared for a three-day strike that is now called off because city and unions found common ground. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    San Jose leaders voted to eliminate vacant jobs, trim retiree sick leave payouts and claw back outdoor events to close a $2.8 million deficit from pay raises—but policymakers and union bosses can’t agree on whether those cuts were necessary.

    The cuts to patch up the shortfall and rebalance San Jose’s budget came after a contentious, monthslong battle between the city and its two largest labor unions.

    Mayor Matt Mahan cast the only “no” vote against the contract deals at the Sept. 12 San Jose City Council meeting after more than an hour of public comments mostly in favor of the new union compensation.

    “My parents told me over and over again to watch people’s actions, not their words,” Debra Grabelle, executive director of IFPTE Local 21, said at the meeting. “It is one thing to say you value staff, and then have press conferences where you try to pit them against the community. It’s one thing to say that you value staff and think they deserve a raise, but then only support raises that would allow them to still only continue to live in their cars.”

    Mahan told San José Spotlight he can’t support the deal over concerns for the city’s financial future.

    “We can agree to disagree, but we can’t allow people to make up their own sets of facts or cherry pick data where it works for them,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “Our democracy relies on us agreeing on a set of common truths.”

    Days before the vote, Mahan plastered messages on social media urging residents to write letters and call councilmembers to oppose the contracts—despite knowing he couldn’t muster the votes to defeat them. Union leaders have accused Mahan of targeting popular programs like Viva Calle and Viva Parks to incite public outcry over the union deals.

    The approved cuts—recommendations from the city manager’s office, not Mahan—mean the city will host two instead of three Viva Calle events per year and 25 fewer Viva Parks events. But the city’s parks department has faced financial struggles even before the union fight with crumbling park infrastructure, a growing maintenance backlog and Viva Calle was on the chopping block just three years ago amid the pandemic.

    The deal with the two unions, which represent 4,500 workers, will provide 14.5% raises over three years—a touch higher than the city’s final offer of 13%.

    A bargaining chip for unions has been a report released in July by Working Partnerships USA, a local think tank advocating for labor unions and working-class families. It came out days before workers voted to authorize a strike.

    Spearheaded by Jeffrey Buchanan, the organization’s policy director who regularly issues sharp criticism of Mahan, the report was intended to prove that the city could afford to give the unions what they wanted without making cuts.

    “All the information in the report is based off of publicly available data,” Buchanan told San José Spotlight. “We were really just trying to highlight the tens of millions of dollars in most years that we budget for and never spend.”

    Officials from IFPTE Local 21 and Staff Up San Jose, the group representing the two unions, could not be reached for comment.

    The discrepancy between the labor report and the shortfall city administrators reported comes down to how you calculate the numbers.

    The report claims the city hasn’t accurately accounted for budget savings from understaffing and project delays. The city, on the other hand, says that money is needed to fund projects beyond their first year and backfill vacant positions through overtime and temporary staffing.

    “If (the city) were to adjust the way that we budget we would be able to easily address the very small difference between … what the city council had proposed at the initial impasse versus what city council had approved in the final agreement,” Buchanan said.

    Working Partnerships’ report says San Jose saved $180 million in its general fund last year. City leaders say that number is actually $33.7 million.

    “Most of the savings that exist are projects and programs that are going to need more than one fiscal year to complete,” San Jose Budget Director Jim Shannon told San José Spotlight. “That doesn’t mean you (actually) have project savings, that just means you haven’t spent all the money yet … the vast majority of the savings, we rebudget at the end of the year and move that money into the following fiscal year.”

    A tradeoff worth taking? 

    Working Partnerships USA Executive Director Maria Noel Fernandez said Mahan should be celebrating a collective win for San Jose.

    “Instead the mayor remains fixated on discrediting anyone that disagrees with him, and shifting blame onto workers and his council colleagues and instilling fear in our communities,” Fernandez told San José Spotlight.

    For nine councilmembers, including Councilmember Pam Foley, the budget cuts needed to support raises was a tradeoff worth taking.

    “I know cuts are going to have to be made, where they come from I don’t know,” Foley said at the meeting. “But approving this contract is critical … yes, we need to be fiscally conservative and fiscally responsible, but we can do both … I know that times are going to be difficult in the future.”

    Contact Ben at [email protected] or follow @B1rwin on Twitter.

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