Ventura County Offer to Hike Salary Package Averts Strike

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County government workers will be looking for an "honest, good-faith effort" to raise their pay during a negotiating session next week--but are still prepared to strike if no progress is made, a union chief said Wednesday.

"If [county negotiators] say the right words next week, there's a good chance we will be able to put an agreement together," said Barry Hammitt, head of the 4,200-member Service Employees International Union, Local 998. "If not, I've still got a whole room of picket signs ready to go."

A walkout by librarians, clerks, social workers, accountants and other general government workers threatened for today was averted when the Board of Supervisors instructed the county's chief executive, Johnny Johnston, to formulate a new offer to the union.

Union members are demanding wages competitive with workers who do the same jobs in neighboring counties, which amounts to an average 10% hike over current pay. Talks stalled nearly two months ago after the county offered 3.5%.

Johnston would not say what the new offer would be at a session scheduled for July 5. But county negotiators will "work very hard to craft a contract that makes sense for the SEIU membership," Johnston said.

Achieving market wages "can't be done all in one year," he said. "But we can offer something, that, in measured steps, will move us that way."

Workers also are asking that retired employees receive a cost-of-living increase on pension checks. About 85% of the union's members do not qualify for the inflationary hikes.

Tuesday's breakthrough appeared to be a relief to both sides, with each offering conciliatory language.

Hammitt said he decided to postpone a strike, in part because he did not want SEIU workers to needlessly go several days without wages. But he also considered the negative effect that a massive walkout could have on the county's ability to provide basic services.

"Do we want to be responsible for creating lasting animosity?" Hammitt said. "We still have to work together after this is all over. And some of it is respect for Mr. Johnston and what he is trying to do."

Johnston, likewise, said he appreciated that the SEIU's leadership had not resorted to "bullying tactics" in stating its position.

"The SEIU workers have a pretty compelling argument and they have made it without rancor," Johnston said.

County Supervisor Judy Mikels said she too is pleased that SEIU has agreed to resume talks.

"They could have looked at us and said, 'Go pound sand,' " she said. "But they agreed to come back to the table."

Mikels said the Board of Supervisors spent two hours behind closed doors Tuesday trying to find a way to give the SEIU what it wants. The problem is finding the estimated $10 million it would cost to bring wages up, she said.

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