Update: Strike begins for Santa Clara County workers amid contract dispute

After months of negotiations with Santa Clara County, thousands of its workers, represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521, went on strike Wednesday — a protest that hasn’t happened in 40 years.

“We are striking because there is a crisis in Santa Clara County when it comes to public services,” said Social Worker Supervisor Veronica Moreno de Leon, 46, who works for the Department of Family and Children’s Services.

The union says 700 workers stopped working and started picketing at five county departments including Roads and Airports, the Public Defender Office, Facilities and Fleet, Reentry Services for people exiting probation or parole, and the Department of Family and Children’s Services. Union leaders said protests will continue with more workers marching on picket lines at more departments “throughout the county with no end date currently announced.”

Members of the local voted to go on strike in August and the South Bay Labor Council gave its sanction to strike last month. Local 521 represents nearly 12,000 county workers including teachers, bus drivers, hospital employees, social workers, parks maintenance crews and staff at the county jails. And although members of the local voted to strike in 2011 and more recently in 2015 — this is the first time in four decades that employees actually stopped work to protest.

San Jose Councilmember Sergio Jimenez joined striking workers at a rally Wednesday at the San Jose Family Resource Center, which the county is planning to relocate several miles away. Jimenez, who was a member of Local 521 before being elected, told strikers they have his support and criticized county leadership for not taking the union’s demands seriously.

“It is no surprise that some of us up here have some friends at the county Board of Supervisors,” Jimenez said. “They know that I’m up here talking and they know that what I want to express is simply this: We need the county leadership, the Board of Supervisors, Jeff Smith and everyone else involved to come to the table to negotiate and find a solution that is mutually beneficial to everyone.”

Strikers also received support Wednesday from the South Bay Labor Council, which represents nearly 100 unions across Silicon Valley.

“It really takes moral courage to give up pay and be out here on the picket line, not just in support of yourselves and your families, but in support of the whole community,” South Bay Labor Council Executive Officer Ben Field told strikers Wednesday. “That’s what this strike is about. And because this is about community, the entire labor movement is here to back you up on this picket line and on every picket line in this community.”

Santa Clara County officials say they have been preparing for a work stoppage and plan to continue services with minimal disruption during the strike. Union bosses and county administrators have been locked in negotiations for six months, butting heads over better pay, health and child care benefits.

After workers started picketing Wednesday, the county issued an update reassuring residents that the impact on services and operations had been minimal. For example, vehicle maintenance and repairs were not completed, but the Department of Family and Children’s Services had to cancel a domestic violence support group meeting and a parenting without violence class at the San Jose Family Resource Center Wednesday night.

The county also created a page on its website to keep people up to date on how the strike is affecting operations.

“We want to assure our residents who rely on the county that we have contingency plans in place,” Smith said in a statement Wednesday. “Services will continue to the greatest extent possible during an SEIU strike. We remain committed to providing critical services to the community,”

According to county leaders, Santa Clara County has offered SEIU “significant increases in salary and benefits” amounting to $625 million over five years. If that proposal were extended to all of the county’s unions, officials said the total salary and benefits budgeted cost over five years would exceed $1.5 billion.

“There has been a difference of opinion between the county and SEIU about the projection of revenue in the future. The county is very concerned about an economic downturn, and slowing revenue growth,” Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “The county is not only worried about a fair wage and an equitable contract, but also making sure the contract and associated salaries are sustainable in the future. The union has focused on recent revenue trends that were stronger, but future revenues are not expected to be nearly as strong.”

Smith remained optimistic that his negotiating team would reach an agreement with the union eventually.

“We’ll continue to negotiate until we have an agreement,” Smith said in an interview last week.

But now Smith says he has to consider the county’s long-term financial prospects when negotiating.

“Maintaining existing county services, making prudent spending decisions, and agreeing on fair but sustainable union contracts is essential to the county’s future fiscal health,” Smith said.

But Local 521 Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez says it’s not about better pay and benefits. Rather, the union leader says his members went on strike to force the county to invest in the services its workers provide.

“We’re not going to let them put the most vulnerable people in our community in jeopardy,” Mendez said at a rally last week. “We’re going to stand for the kids, we’re going to stand for the elderly, we’re going to stand for the homeless, we’re going to stand for the sick. We’re going to stand for the entire community — that’s what this strike is about.”

The work stoppage is the latest in a series of recent protest actions taken by members of the union. Last week hundreds of workers rallied in the plaza outside the County Government Center then rode the elevators up to Smith’s 11th-floor office to confront him.

Members of SEIU Local 521, representing 12,000 Santa Clara County workers, were arrested on Sept. 19, 2019 for blocking traffic to protest the county’s plans to shutter some of its social services in East San Jose. Photo by Adam F. Hutton.

Fourteen members of the union were arrested the week before in an act of civil disobedience for blocking traffic to protest the county’s plans to close a resource center for the county’s Social Services Agency in East San Jose.

“I don’t think anybody wants to strike, but we’re ready,” said Valerie Pickering, 60, a social worker supervisor with the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. She was among those arrested two weeks ago, along with Mendez and Moreno de Leon.

Pickering is a member of the union’s bargaining team who’s been at the negotiating table since April. She is one of ten supervisors managing about 80 social workers in the emergency response unit, which investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect.

“Retaining social workers is hard,” Pickering told San José Spotlight. “Housing and childcare are very expensive in this county. So many of our workers rely on relatives and friends for help.”

None of that would be necessary, union leaders say, if the county provided adequate child care benefits or paid its workers enough to afford the cost of living in the county.

“We want to make sure that Santa Clara County is a place that all of us can live, not just the wealthy few,” Mendez said.

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

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