Santa Clara County workers ditch picket plans after striking deal
Santa Clara County and SEIU Local 521 have reached a tentative agreement in contract negotiations and will avoid a worker strike. File photo.

    Santa Clara County union workers struck a historic deal on Friday to increase their wages, subsequently averting a strike by these essential workers.

    The agreement between union workers and county officials will provide Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 521 members—the largest union in the county—with the largest wage increase in more than 20 years. The agreement comes after workers voted to authorize a strike last month after their existing contract expired on June 25.

    Riko Mendez, chief elected officer with the local union, said members’ willingness to strike provided the pressure needed for county officials to come to the table and strike a deal.

    “That kind of pressure, I think is good for both sides,” Mendez told San José Spotlight. “It helps our union members stay focused on what’s most important to them and it helps the county really put enough resources into the negotiation so that we can get a fair deal.”

    Union employees consisting of janitors, health care workers, social workers and more were upset over the shortage of workers and vacant positions they said overburdened them. The amount of vacancies has risen by more than 40% since the last contract negotiations three years ago. Mendez previously said in June that the number of vacant positions had reached a “fever pitch.”

    The contract agreement is still considered tentative, and the union will vote on it in the next two weeks before it heads to the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors to ratify the deal. The last time county workers went on strike was in October 2019 and it lasted 10 days.

    James Williams, the county’s new CEO and executive director, said reaching the tentative agreement was critical to moving forward in both supporting employees and continuing to provide ongoing services to residents.

    “SEIU represents more than half the county workforce—public servants who show their commitment every day to serving and caring for our diverse community,” Williams said in a statement today. “It is a win-win for our employees and for the community that relies on the high-quality care and excellent services we offer to Santa Clara County residents.”

    The tentative deal will provide a 13% wage increase across three years, a one-time payment of $1,200, as well as equity and wage increases for positions that have been underfunded compared to their counterparts, including public health nurses. The county hopes to curb staffing shortages with the wage increases for these positions.

    Santa Clara County Supervisor Otto Lee said he is happy with the speed and collaboration that took place to reach an agreement, noting negotiations did not begin until April.

    “I’m extremely pleased that we were able to come to a conclusion without resorting to any type of strikes at all and I think it’s a very fair contract moving forward,” Lee told San José Spotlight. “(The union and county officials) really put their heads together, they didn’t let the momentum die down… it was that type of hard work from all sides to bring everything together (that made this deal happen).”

    Mendez said these increases will help union members who have been stretched thin throughout and following the COVID-19 pandemic.

    “Frontline service workers, who the community and the elected officials recognize as essential workers—as critical to the safety of our community—they really are (essential),” Mendez said.

    The vacancies have been an ongoing problem plaguing the county for years. Mental health professionals in various agencies and health care workers at Santa Clara Valley Medical Center (VMC)—which is county operated—have said dwindling staffing levels have led to longer wait times 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.

    The workers voted to authorize the strike in June as the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors debated and ultimately decided to terminate 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 will be reallocated to other areas.

    Contact Julia Forrest at [email protected] or follow @juliaforrest35 on Twitter.

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