Members of the largest union representing state workers authorized their leaders on Saturday to launch a strike, although union officials said there were no immediate plans to walk off the job.
"There is no strike planned at this time," said union spokesman Jim Zamora. "What we will be doing is holding a number of meetings next week to decide what our next step is."
Balloting completed Saturday gives leaders of Service Employees Union International Local 1000 -- which represents 95,000 state workers in scores of government agencies including clerks at the DMV, auditors at the state tax board, and healthcare professionals in public hospitals -- the power to take job actions "up to and including a strike."
The membership voted nearly 3 to 1 in favor of the authorization.
"This is about our contract," said Yvonne Walker, president of the union. "Whether it is through litigation, negotiations or any other actions that are necessary, we're in this for the long haul to right this wrong to our members."
Union officials and Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger reached a deal on a new contract in February, but the Legislature has yet to ratify it. Since that time, the governor has ordered most state workers to take off a third day per month without pay. The furloughs have effectively cut the pay of those workers by nearly 15%. The budget recently signed by Schwarzenegger keeps those furloughs in place until at least June 2010.
Union officials say a strike would be legal despite a provision in their existing contract specifically prohibiting such action. They say the administration lost the ability to enforce the no-strike clause after imposing the furloughs, which the union argues are not legal.
"With so many Californians out of work, it is very disappointing that these employees have voted to walk away from their jobs," said Schwarzenegger spokesman Aaron McLear. "We hope state workers continue to show up to work at a time when Californians are in need of the valuable services they provide."
A union statement says a strike could be called if leaders deem it "necessary" to get the new contract ratified. It is possible that the leaders will instead implement smaller-scale actions, such as afternoon walkouts.
Union leaders lobbied membership heavily for the strike authority.
In a vote summary distributed to the rank and file, the leaders characterized a vote against authorization as a vote to "accept the governor's repeated assaults on public services and attacks on our pay and benefits."