Santa Clara County reaches last-minute deal with workers to avoid strike
Santa Clara County workers represented by SEIU Local 521 were on strike for 10 days last fall, including health care workers at Valley Medical Center on Oct. 17, 2019. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Santa Clara County and the union representing 12,000 of its workers reached a provisional agreement late Thursday to avoid a strike after four days and nights of intense negotiations that ran into the wee hours of the morning.

Workers with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 — which represents more than half of the county’s 22,000 employees — were threatening to strike again beginning today, after a ten-day rolling strike in October and breaking off third-party mediation in December. The workers have been without a contract since July 2019.

The deal reached Thursday, which still needs to be approved by union members and the county Board of Supervisors, includes 3% pay raises over the next four years and a signing bonus equivalent to a 3% raise for the time since the last contract ended in summer 2019. The bonus will be paid in lump sums after the union ratifies the contract.

The union declared “victory for county residents and workers,” just hours after a self-imposed deadline for an agreement had passed. County leaders and unions officials were at a standstill for eight months with both sides sending offers and counteroffers detailing demands for pay, benefits and other working conditions.

“We are extremely proud to have stood resilient and united throughout these negotiations,” SEIU Local 521 President Janet Diaz said in a statement announcing the deal. “As a result, we have an agreement that will truly help us meet the needs of our families and the community we serve.”

Members of the Santa Clara County Chapter of Local 521 voted to strike in August and engaged in a variety of protests in September leading up to a rolling strike that began Oct. 2, 2019.

On Thursday morning, with the threat of a strike still looming, social worker Clarence Cisneros-Jones told San José Spotlight that workers at the Department of Family and Children’s Services were prepared to go back to the picket lines, if a deal wasn’t reached by the deadline.

“Everybody here is ready,” said Cisneros-Jones, who works at the San José Family Resource Center — where several workers were arrested in September for blocking traffic to protest the county’s plans to close the East Side center and relocate its wide array of services downtown.

The social workers said their fight with the county wasn’t just about pay and benefits — they also raised their voices about working conditions, including a longstanding mandatory overtime order from management amid a slew of open positions that went unfilled by the county.

Weeks later, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted to keep the resource center in East San Jose. In a separate decision, the supervisors also voted to close the county’s troubled Receiving, Assessment and Intake Center, or RAIC — where children who were removed from their homes to protect them from abuse and neglect had been been taken since 2010. In the months leading up to last fall’s strike, union workers at the RAIC complained the intake and assessment model was endangering those vulnerable children.

“All along, our Santa Clara County members have maintained focus on addressing the obstacles that impact the communities they serve every day,” SEIU Local 521 Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez said in a statement announcing Thursday’s deal.

“Our members have advocated for those they serve,” Mendez added, from “at-risk children within the Department of Family and Children’s Services, to advocating for the vital needs of foster parents, as well as urging to solve staffing shortages at county hospitals, 911 dispatch, and other critical departments.”

Local 521 and the county agreed to enter voluntary mediation with a neutral third party leading the negotiations in November. But the union decided to end those talks after six weeks.

“I felt hopeful when we started mediation and that we didn’t come to a resolution was really disappointing,” Cisneros-Jones told San José Spotlight before Thursday’s deadline. “I don’t feel very hopeful this time.”

But the progress that was made in those negotiations in November and December was crucial to reaching the agreement announced Thursday, said County Executive Jeff Smith.

“We started out very, very, very far apart,” Smith told San José Spotlight. “Through mediation we got considerably closer and now we have a deal.”

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

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