Santa Clara County union ends mediation after contract talks fall apart
Hospital workers at Valley Medical Center joined the picket lines Oct. 17. 12,000 Santa Clara County workers represented by SEIU Local 521 have been on strike since Oct. 2. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Santa Clara County and the union representing its service workers agreed to resolve a prolonged labor dispute by mediation in November — now it seems those negotiations have fallen apart as workers walked away from the bargaining table Thursday afternoon.

In a letter to Santa Clara County Chief Operating Officer Miguel Marquez, the bargaining team for the union said they’re ending mediation because workers and the county are nowhere near a settlement. Furthermore, the letter says continuing mediation sends a contrary message to workers and the county Board of Supervisors.

“We believe that they, like many of our members, will continue to believe that as long as we are in mediation, we could be ‘close’ to a settlement,” the letter reads. “That is not the case.”

Though mediation has stopped for now, union leaders said Thursday they’re willing to continue negotiations and will voluntarily refrain from calling another strike “until further notice.” A decision is expected after Jan. 10.

The two sides decided to begin mediation with a neutral third-party after a month of strike activities including work stoppages at hospitals, libraries, courts, parks and other county facilities

On Thursday, representatives of labor and county management sat down at the bargaining table again — the latest in a series of sessions mediated by Joel Schaffer.

After months of disputes over pay, benefits and working conditions, both sides agreed to let Schaffer — a former commissioner for the United States Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service with decades of experience resolving labor disputes — help them find opportunities for compromise.

Schaffer has been guiding the two sides on a path toward a new contract since Nov. 5 and they’ve met about a dozen times since then.

Members of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521, the organization representing 12,000 county workers, voted to strike in August. Workers in the Santa Clara County chapter of Local 521 spent the following month engaging in a variety of protests — including an act of civil disobedience that saw a dozen social workers arrested for blocking traffic to protest an overhaul of the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services to  hundreds of workers swarming the office of County Executive Officer Jeff Smith.

On the same day workers protested in his office, Smith said he hoped to get them to agree to mediation without going on strike and believed a “fair, equitable and sustainable” contract was within reach. That didn’t happen, but Smith said having a neutral third party moderate negotiations has been the key to their success up to this point.

“I’m encouraged,” Smith told San José Spotlight Thursday before the mediation was called off. “It’s been slow progress, but it is progress.”

Work stoppages began a few days later on Oct. 2 at the San Jose Family Resource Center and the strike was suspended briefly during a countywide state of emergency, declared by the Board of Supervisors while Pacific Gas & Electric had shut off power to large swaths of Santa Clara County.

The county and the union continued to jostle after the strike resumed. The county issued a so-called “last, best and final offer,” and the union threatened to reject it before both sides agreed, at the end of October, to go back to the negotiating table.

At the time, union leaders said they took it as a sign of good faith that the county wanted to bring in a third party.

“Our bargaining team believes that the Board of Supervisors and county would not have made this move if they didn’t want to reach a fair settlement,” SEIU Local 521 Santa Clara County Chapter President Janet Diaz said in a November statement.

But after six weeks of negotiations, Diaz feels differently.

“Jeff Smith, under the direction of the Board of Supervisors, has for months ridiculed and undermined the efforts of front-line workers to reach an equitable agreement that puts forth long-term solutions to the staffing crisis impacting our residents’ abilities to obtain critical services,” Diaz said in a statement Thursday.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.

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