Santa Clara County union negotiators share new proposal details amid strike delay
SEIU International President Mary Kay Henry applauds the negotiating team of SEIU Local 521 as its Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez raises his fist in salute at a news conference Friday October 11, 2019. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

With an ongoing labor strike interrupted by intentional PG&E blackouts across Santa Clara County, members of SEIU Local 521’s bargaining team spent the last two days preparing a contract proposal for the 12,000 county workers it represents, the union announced at a news conference Friday afternoon.

Negotiators declined to discuss many of the specific details of the proposal at the news conference, saying they just finished it and had not yet delivered it to county leaders. But Local 521 president Janet Diaz, who has worked at a county hospital for 17 years, highlighted a key element of the union’s proposal.

“As of today, we’ve been in negotiations with the county for nearly seven months,” Diaz said. “And we are pleased to announce today that we are presenting a comprehensive proposal to the county. This is a community-focused proposal, ensuring accountability for the county, and to address the widespread vacancies that put the health and safety of our residents at risk.”

The union president said Santa Clara County is suffering from staffing shortages across all departments — and the remaining workers have to pick up the slack. She said the proposal calls on the county to fill the vacant positions they have already budgeted for, or start turning over a portion of those funds to the workers who keep the departments running in spite of the county’s recruitment and retention troubles.

“If our county continues to disregard the vacancy challenge, the workers are stuck doing more,” Diaz said. “We at least deserve to be compensated for these fully budgeted positions that are unfilled.”

Local 521 members have been on strike since Oct. 2, with as many as 1,000 county employees stopping work to join the picket lines in protest, according to the union’s estimates. Union leaders called out different workers at various county departments to stop work on different days and join the picket lines last week and continued through Tuesday. County leaders say they were prepared for the work stoppage and have been maintaining services with minimal disruption while union members have been on strike.

The union announced late Tuesday that it would suspend strike activities indefinitely as the electric utility juggernaut initiated its “public safety power shutoff,” saying high winds could cause equipment to spark more wildfires like last year’s deadly Camp Fire.

Diaz said workers suspended the strike as a public safety concern while thousands of South Bay residents were living without electricity.

But that doesn’t mean the strike is over, said Jason Dorsey, a maintenance mechanic at the county’s Facilities and Fleet department and a negotiator on the union’s bargaining team.

“We’re very proud of that decision,” said Dorsey, who has worked for the county for 14 years. “It was a direct reflection of what our fight has always been about — to ensure that our community has the necessary services to be both healthy and safe.

“But let me be very clear,” Dorsey continued. “The unfair labor practice strike against the county is still on. Our members are ready to return to the picket lines at a moment’s notice.”

Over the past two days, while strike activities have been suspended, union negotiators have been preparing a new contract proposal to take to county leaders. Members of the union voted to strike at the end of August and staged various protests and acts of civil disobedience in September — including 14 of its members getting arrested for blocking traffic and marching hundreds of workers up to County Executive Officer Jeff Smith’s office before the strike was declared.

“I don’t know what to expect,” Smith said in anticipation of the union’s proposal in an interview with San Jose Spotlight on Wednesday.

“I hope they will come back with a proposal that we can discuss,” he added. “I don’t know if it will be something that we can accept outright or whether we’ll want to offer a counter proposal, but I am encouraged that there is interest in coming back to the negotiating table. Hopefully we’ll be able to stop the strike because it puts the safety and health of the community at risk.”

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

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