Striking social workers took to the picket lines for a second day Friday, with no progress reported in negotiations with Los Angeles County and a probable escalation of work-site actions next week by the county's largest public-employee union.
"We intend to ramp it up," said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721, which represents 55,000 county employees — including 3,600 social workers and their supervisors — who have been working without a contract for two months. "This is not going to be an easy fight."
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this article said Philip Browning, the head of L.A. County's Department of Children and Family Services, was giving his first interview since the strike began. He wasn't.
About two-thirds of social workers and their supervisors did not show up for work Friday, similar to Thursday's numbers. During a raucous rally in front of the county Department of Children and Family Services building, the head of the agency made a surprise appearance.
"I support social workers, but I want you to come back to work," said Philip Browning, prompting sustained boos from the crowd of several hundred employees.
The workers had picketed at offices throughout the county before gathering for the rally, where they were addressed by Reps. Janice Hahn (D-Calif.) and Judy Chu (D-Calif.). Afterward, they danced, clanged purple cowbells and waved picket signs that said "Child Safety Now!"
Speaker after speaker railed against county leaders for failing to help overburdened social workers or punishing them when things went wrong — the agency has mishandled several cases of child neglect and abuse, a few leading to deaths. The real culprit, speakers said, was a refusal by county officials to see how the caseloads were harming children.
The current contract sets the maximum caseload for most social workers at 31. Union representatives argue that is too high and also say that 680 social workers have caseloads above the maximum.
"You can run but you can't hide," roared SEIU Regional Director Michael Green, pointing toward the agency headquarters. "Damn you if you can't handle the damn truth!"
The union sent two leaders to the building to deliver to Browning an SEIU poster that showed a woman's hand holding a child's hand and said "I Support Child Safety." They were turned away, displeasing the crowd, and then Browning appeared.
After being drowned out by chants, Browning approached Schoonover and said, "Well, when are we going to get back to the table?" according to Schoonover, who said he replied, "When you have something different to talk about."
In a brief interview, Browning said he agreed that caseloads were too high and he outlined steps that county officials were taking to reduce them, notably the hiring of 300 to 400 new social workers, which would result in lowering caseloads by 30% within a year.
"I'm confident we're on our way. I know the board [of supervisors] and the CEO want this strike to be over and everyone to come back to work," he said.
When asked about the union's proposal that officials pledge to hire 35 new workers per month for 17 months, Browning demurred, saying it was a budgetary issue, before heading inside the building.
County spokesman David Sommers said hundreds of managers are filling in for the striking workers.
"Striking social workers talk about protecting children, yet they've made the decision to walk out on the very children they're responsible to protect," he said. "These kids need their social workers during the holiday season more than any other time of the year, SEIU knows this, and yet they've walked away."