Thousands of Santa Clara County union workers voted to authorize their bargaining team to call for a strike as their contract is set to expire later this month and the county grapples with a budget deficit.
Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 members are upset over the shortage of workers and vacant positions that have overburdened current county employees. They’re demanding more compensation for existing workers. SEIU Local 521 is the largest union in the county and include janitors, health care workers, social workers and more.
Riko Mendez, chief elected officer with the local union, said the main reason they voted in favor of a strike was the vacancy issue, which is rampant in the county. He said the amount of vacancies has risen by more than 40% since the last contract negotiations three years ago. He said the number of vacant positions has reached a “fever pitch.”
“We’ve put what we believe (are) some really smart, thoughtful ideas on the table and in the form of bargaining proposals to help address those issues,” Mendez told San José Spotlight.
Instead the county has rejected their ideas and has shown no willingness to work toward a solution, he said.
By voting yes, the union gave power to the bargaining team to launch a strike if they decide it is necessary during contract negotiations. The current contract is set to expire on June 25. The last strike in October 2019 went for 10 days.
County Executive Jeff Smith said despite the union having the right to strike, that decision could slow down negotiations.
“I’m disappointed because we’re making progress at the table with negotiations, (but) we’ve been delayed because they were unable to get to the table with us until the middle of April,” Smith told San José Spotlight. “I think we’re in a place where both sides can get to an agreement. I don’t think a strike helps that.”
The workers cast their votes this week on whether to strike as the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors considers terminating 650 vacant positions out of about 3,500 to help reduce a $120 million budget deficit. According to the proposed 2023-24 budget, the funds for those positions would be reallocated to other areas.
The vacancies have been an ongoing county problem for years. Mental health professionals in various county agencies and health care workers at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC)—which is county operated—have said dwindling staffing levels turn into patients waiting longer in the emergency department. Additionally, a 2022 survey found about 69% of doctors employed by county at VMC are planning to leave their positions within the next three years.
Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee said that to address the vacancy issue, hiring processes need to be streamlined and the county must double its recruiting efforts. He did not address the potential decision to eliminate hundreds of vacant positions in the county’s budget.
“Our county’s short staffing is severe,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “The current hiring process is too slow and needs to be revamped (as soon as possible).”
Mendez said that as negotiations continue, he hopes both sides are heard and can agree on a contract.
“Our workers and our community deserve more,” Mendez said. “So we’re going to keep fighting for more. And if it means we have to consider striking, we’re going to consider striking to do that.”
Contact Julia Forrest at [email protected] or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.