Union leaders reject San Jose mayor’s olive branch
San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan speaks at a Sept. 12, 2023 news conference at City Hall in this file photo.

It looks like no matter what San Jose Mayor Matt Mahan does, he cannot win favor in the eyes of his labor counterparts.

Mahan invited four labor groups representing VTA workers to receive an award for collaborating to secure more housing options for homeless people in San Jose at the Cerone VTA yard earlier this month. The award was to be presented Saturday at Mahan’s first State of the City, an annual address by the mayor to update residents on its performance, progress on solving the city’s biggest issues and future plans.

Union leaders from ATU 265, IFPTE 21, SEIU 521 and AFSCME 1101—representing more than 2,000 VTA employees—are declining the award and won’t be attending to accept it. But VTA officials will be in attendance to receive the award, Mahan said.

“While we appreciate your invitation, we are concerned that you initially chose to malign us and our members and did not engage in a sincere process with VTA to address the concerns of all parties,” union representatives wrote in an Oct. 16 letter.

Copy of the letter union leaders sent to Mayor Matt Mahan’s invitation to receive the ‘Mayor’s Community Champion’ award.

Mahan said he was disappointed the invitation was rejected because it was meant to celebrate two opposite positions working together to solve homelessness.

“The important thing is that we all came together to secure a site that’s going to house 200 people who are currently living in encampments,” Mahan told San José Spotlight. “This was one of the biggest policy discussions and decisions that we’ve made this year at the VTA (board). I think it’s an important moment to celebrate where we landed.”

The debate between VTA board members was contentious and driven by deep political divides. While the transit agency’s unionized workers opposed using the yard for homeless housing due to security and safety concerns, plans eventually passed with a unanimous vote earlier this month.

The relationship between Mahan and unions was already strained before this, due to a monthslong salary negotiation in August that nearly led to the city’s largest employee strike in 40 years. Mahan was intent on not giving an additional raise beyond what the city was offering, noting the city could not afford it, and labor leaders took that as a sign that Mahan didn’t fully support workers.

Tammy Dhanota, SEIU 521 chairperson for the VTA chapter, said she is still uncomfortable that the San Jose City Council approved using VTA sites for homeless housing in 2022 without first talking to employees. She said up until the last minute, workers were not part of the process, and for that reason she thinks the award from Mahan is political and not in good faith.

“For me I can’t accept it. I feel like it’s bribery or something,” Dhanota told San José Spotlight. “Is he giving us an award to like ignore all of our safety concerns going forward?”

Dhanota said receiving an award after the housing site is completed would make more sense. Until then, she said she wants to make sure workers’ concerns are addressed throughout the process of building and filling  the transitional housing.

“We want to make sure (Mahan) follows through with what he says,” Dhanota said, referring to the safety measures and community advisory groups that workers wanted.

Mahan said the city worked with union leaders in the months leading up to the Cerone vote and held a town hall meeting before the vote as well. He said there was community engagement, but understands that doesn’t mean everyone will be on the same page.

“I think we should focus on the fact that we’re moving forward together and bringing forward a really meaningful solution that’s going to save lives,” Mahan said. “I’m disappointed that VTA workers won’t be represented by their union leaders, but it doesn’t change the fact that I’m grateful to the workers for being a partner in our fight to end homelessness.”

The State of the City address is tomorrow at San Jose City College is free to the public and starts at 1 p.m.

Contact Jana Kadah at [email protected] or @Jana Kadah on X, formerly known as Twitter.

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