Court Clerks Go on Strike in Wage Dispute
After more than six years without a pay raise, hundreds of Los Angeles court clerks went on strike Wednesday in a job action that could cripple the county’s justice system if it lasts more than a few days.
The walkout, which marked the first full-fledged strike by Superior and Municipal Court clerks in at least a quarter of a century, prompted county officials to acknowledge that their current offer to the clerks--a 10% pay increase over the next three years--was not their last, best offer. The clerks are seeking a 20% raise over the same period.
But as negotiations were set to continue today, it was unclear how much the pay offer would be sweetened. And even if the county reaches agreement with its 650 court clerks, 425 court reporters also are poised for a walkout--a move that would shut down the criminal and civil courts, where official records of proceedings are required by law.
In fact, if agreement is reached with the clerks, officials of the court reporters union said they would not accept anything less than the contract package given to their courtroom colleagues.
“If that happens . . . we’ve got a major, major, huge, humongous problem,” said Gary Cramer, spokesman for the Los Angeles County Court Reporters Assn.
From the San Fernando Valley to the South Bay, about 80% to 90% of the about 400 Superior Court clerks participated in the strike, which union officials say will last unless workers receive more than the 10% raise now on the table.
“We are not stopping the strike until we settle the contract. That is the direction we have gotten from our membership,” said Karlene George, president of the Los Angeles County Superior Court Clerks Assn., American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 575.
Her statement was supported by picket lines at courthouses throughout the county.
“We have never done this,” an angry Joseph Pulido said as he marched with other striking clerks outside the downtown Criminal Courts Building. “And we are going to stay out,” said Pulido, who has been a Superior Court clerk since 1985.
In Torrance, where about 15 employees picketed the courthouse, veteran clerk Marilynn Holcomb voiced the indignation of many of her colleagues, who saw their job action as a last resort. “We’ve never become so angry and so desperate that we felt we had to go this far,” said Holcomb, who like others was wearing a green shirt to symbolize the color of money.
While union president George said 90% to 95% of the clerks participated in the first day of the strike, Jerianne Hayslett, spokeswoman for the Superior Court, said the walkout was joined by about 78% of the 350 clerks scheduled to work Wednesday.
Although inconveniencing the county’s 18 Superior Courts and creating backlogs in processing cases and court files, Hayslett said the strike had not yet had a serious effect on operations.
“All the courts were open and available for business,” she said. “They are putting people in courtrooms who don’t normally work as clerks, but have the training or backgrounds to do the work.”
Similarly, Robert Quist, deputy administrator of the Municipal Court, said its 13 locations had not been significantly affected by the strike.
Only about 17% of the county’s 150 Municipal Court clerks participated in the strike, Quist said. Union officials said the percentage was slightly higher and blamed the relatively low participation on last-minute confusion about whether to sanction the strike.
The strike’s impact, however, was visible at courthouses throughout the county.
Inside the 19-story Criminal Courts Building downtown, the disruptions were evident as clerks who did not strike were assigned to courtrooms with the heaviest volume of preliminary proceedings and other pretrial motions.
In numerous cases, judges took their own notes of trial proceedings, swore in witnesses, or searched with attorneys through files crucial to presenting cases and locating witnesses.
“We can’t operate without our clerks,” Deputy Dist. Atty. Penny Schneider said in one of the high-security courtrooms downtown.
“People think all they do is handle some paperwork. But they are almost like 911 operators or dispatchers . . . the clerks make sure everything doesn’t fall apart,” she said.
And if the strike continues for more than several days, Schneider added, the impact could be severe, as cases are delayed, files are not processed, and contacts with the county jails or state prisons about defendants are not handled in a timely manner.
To avert that possibility, some judges took on new roles.
“Not only did I swear in all the witnesses, I marked all the evidentiary evidence and rendered a verdict,” said San Fernando Superior Court Judge Ronald S. Coen, who said he taught himself how to fill out a document by looking at old paperwork.
“All I need to do now is go to court reporter’s and bailiff’s school and I’ll be a full-service court,” Coen quipped.
In Santa Monica, where about a dozen clerks carried picket signs, Superior Court Judge Hugh Gardner III said the strike had not yet inconvenienced him.
Often, Municipal and Superior Court matters are heard in the same courtrooms on the same day by the same judge. So, he said, he had asked the nonstriking Municipal Court clerk to stay on for Superior Court matters. “I’m making do,” he said.
Not quite so content was civil attorney Bert Rogal of Beverly Hills, who said the strike has added 25% to his courtroom time--the extra time coming out of his pocket. “Any trustworthy attorney will not bill a client for what the client can’t help,” he said.
Attorney Thomas Hood of Huntington Beach found out about the strike over the radio as he was driving up. His client, Suzanne Millar, a Beverly Hills property manager, said she had closed her office to be at court.
“It was very inconsiderate of the court not to let us know [of the strike],” she said. “They should have hired temps to make phone calls and let us know.”
Amid such confusion, union officials and representatives of the county’s negotiating teams were prepared to resume talks in an effort to reach an agreement.
County Supervisor Don Knabe confirmed that the county had still not made its final offer.
“I don’t think the best and final offers are out yet,” he said.
“Obviously, I’m disappointed,” Knabe said of the strike. “We’d love to give them what they want but there are a lot of folks in this county who have gone without a raise for a while.”
Meanwhile, the court reporters are considering walking out if an agreement is not reached on their contract soon, said Annelle Grajeda, general manager of their union, Service Employees International Union, Local 660.
The union, which has asked for a 12% increase over three years, plans to go back to the bargaining table today, Grajeda said. The county has so far offered 10%.
“We’re not too far apart,” Grajeda said. “We are hopeful we are going to settle this thing [today].”
But a union source said that if an agreement is not reached today, its members would engage in some kind of job action.
Times staff writers Andrew Blankstein, Deborah Belgum, Joseph Hanania, Yung Kim and Ann O’Neill contributed to this story.
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