Members of Los Angeles County's largest employee union voted to give their leaders authority to call a strike, after months of contentious talks about wages, employee healthcare and working conditions.
"If we need to go there, we'll go there, but I'm hoping we'll be able to negotiate this at the table," said Blanca Gomez, a children's social worker who is on the union's bargaining team.
The Service Employees International Union set up booths at work sites across the county to collect ballots, and tallied the results Saturday. SEIU Local 721 spokesman Lowell Goodman said the measure was approved by 95% of the "tens of thousands" of members who cast ballots, but declined to say how many of the local's 41,493 voting members had participated.
In 2000 — the last time county employees voted to authorize a strike — workers walked off job sites in an 11-day series of "rolling strikes," before then-Cardinal
SEIU walked away from the bargaining table late last month, accusing the county of being unresponsive to its demands.
Healthcare has been a sticking point in negotiations. Employee health premiums are set to increase in January, which SEIU says will amount to a pay cut for many workers, even with the 6% raise over three years that the county is offering. Workers agreed to go without raises for the past five years to allow the county to weather the recession without layoffs or major service cuts.
The county has offered to cover the health premium increase, but only if the unions agree to health-benefit cuts for future employees, a measure that county officials say is needed to curtail potentially crippling retiree healthcare costs. County workers now get all of their health costs covered in retirement.
Goodman characterized the county's approach as "holding healthcare for current workers hostage to a plan to really severely reduce healthcare for future retirees."
County Assistant Chief Executive Jim Adams, who oversees labor relations, said management is slated to begin Thursday a series of facilitated talks on the issue with SEIU and a coalition of unions representing other county workers. Goodman said there are tentative plans to return to the table for contract negotiations depending on the outcome of the discussions about retiree healthcare.
SEIU has also demanded the county reduce caseloads for social workers in the Department of Children and Family Services, which has been rocked by a series of high-profile child death cases.
Last week, the union sued the county over caseloads in the department's Compton office, saying the county had failed to comply with a directive issued last year to reduce the social worker-to-child ratios there.
Under their contract, the social workers are supposed to monitor no more than 30 children at a time, but SEIU said they often handle two or three times that number.
The contract talks are further complicated by the fact that the three appointed members of the county's employee relations commission — which is supposed to rule on labor disputes — quit in protest in September, citing concerns about a new contract for hearing officers. The commissioners have not been replaced.
SEIU officials said more than 500 grievances and unfair labor practice charges have piled up without a commission to review them — including allegations of bad faith bargaining, retaliation against union members and a charge that the county interfered with labor relations by imposing the new rules that prompted the commissioners to quit.