San Jose worker strike would shut down city services
Hundreds of San Jose city employees protest outside city hall in June 2023. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    Libraries may close, summer youth programs could be canceled and flights at San Jose Mineta International Airport could be delayed if city employees vote to strike this week over failed contract negotiations.

    It would be the largest strike San Jose has seen in the last 40 years, with potentially 4,500 city employees staying home. This decision to walk out, being voted upon by city workers on Tuesday, stems from ongoing salary negotiations that began in March. Tensions have reached new heights as the city refuses to budge—despite multiple protests and ongoing threats of a strike.

    “This should be taken extremely seriously,” Mayor Matt Mahan said. “We certainly have plans for continuity of service, but there’s no doubt that it would have an impact and I certainly hope our bargaining units don’t go there.”

    The city’s latest offer is a 5% raise for the 2023-24 fiscal year, 4% in 2024-25 and 3% in 2025-26. The unions are demanding a 7% increase for 2023-24, 6% in 2024-25 and 5% in 2025-26. Representatives from the two unions—MEF-AFSCME Local 101 and IFPTE Local 21—said a strike is imminent unless last minute changes to their demands are made. More than 2,500 employees have signed the strike-ready pledge.

    The list of affected services runs long. In addition to impacts on the most frequently used city services, the zoo and animal shelter could see disruptions, and calls about blight, graffiti, abandoned vehicles or other code enforcement violations will backlog even further. Depending on who decides to strike, environmental specialists, water maintenance staff and workers from the transportation department could pause their work on major city projects. It could delay development, increasing costs.

    Empty departments 

    Carlos Murillo, an airport engineer who oversees major construction projects, said he doesn’t want to strike. He loves his job and takes pride in working for his hometown, but said he has no choice. He said salaries are not competitive and staff are working multiple jobs because of nearly 800 vacancies.

    “(This includes airport staff) from the badging office, to operations and security folks who respond to emergencies and security incidents,” Murillo told San José Spotlight. “People who ensure that everything runs smoothly and the passenger experience is good.”

    If the strike is authorized, the entire code enforcement department could also be vacant, except for management.

    Cheryl Wessling, spokesperson for the Planning, Building and Code Enforcement Department, said many non-emergency calls would go unanswered, but dangerous or life-threatening calls like unsafe building conditions or a sewage overflow on private property would still be a priority.

    “Our managers and retiree rehires may assist with these types of emergency cases,” Wessling told San José Spotlight. “If necessary, we can leverage contract help.”

    Nick Rovetto, a community service officer turned code enforcement employee, said he is concerned about the people who would be most affected by a strike.

    “The individuals that make code enforcement complaints not because they are dissatisfied with the appearance of their neighborhood, or their actions of a neighboring resident,” Rovetto told San José Spotlight. “Rather the ones that truly need our help because they’re living within substandard housing conditions.”

    ‘A very painful process’

    Rovetto said because of that, the decision to strike is a difficult and emotional one for him—but like many of his colleagues, he said there is no other option. He said the potential of a strike is a testament to how low morale is in the city.

    “There have been recruitment issues. There have been retention issues,” Rovetto said. “I had coworkers that are homeless and struggling with finding housing that’s affordable, some driving hours just to get to work.”

    Mahan and Jennifer Schembri, director of employee relations and human resources who is leading negotiations for the city, said 937 city jobs were vacant in 2022 — that number is now 798, 2% lower than last year. Schembri also said 271 people quit their jobs in the 2022-23 fiscal year, about 100 people less than the previous year.

    Mahan emphasized the raises being offered are comparable to other Bay Area cities, and if the city offered bigger raises, it would have significant impacts on the budget for years. He said it would be unfair to other unions that already accepted the city’s current offer.

    “I don’t see how the city goes much farther without having to go through a very painful process that I personally don’t support, which is reopening the budget we just passed and putting real city services on the chopping block,” Mahan said. “Given all the facts of the situation here, I think it would be a fairly unreasonable step to take and unfair to our residents, frankly.”

    City workers said they hope San Jose officials can meet them closer to halfway so a strike is avoided. The city is having a special closed session meeting on Tuesday to address the imminent strike.

    “We have to put up our last fight because otherwise it’s just going to keep happening and that means more vacancies, more burn out and more people suffering,” Murillo said.

    Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or follow @Jana_Kadah on Twitter.

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