As Los Angeles County and union negotiators bargained in a building on the grounds of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels on Tuesday evening, more than 100 county workers held a candlelight vigil outside the downtown landmark and called on the county to meet their demands.
"Let's make some noise for those upstairs to let them know we're here and we will not be moved," the Rev. William Smart of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference cried into a bullhorn, addressing members of SEIU 721, the largest public-employee union in the county. "Our lives, our pensions, our social security, everything is at stake. Everything we've been fighting for is at stake!"
The 55,000 workers represented by the Service Employees International Union have been working without a contract since their agreement expired on Sept. 30, and relations between the county and the union have deteriorated. Workers voted earlier this month to authorize a strike.
While several other steps would have to occur before a strike happened, the move represented an escalation of tensions. The last time SEIU held a strike authorization vote, in 2000, workers walked picket lines for 11 days. The action ended when Cardinal Roger Mahony intervened and urged both sides to come back to the table.
The current dispute is over pay raises and health costs. The union went without raises for several years to help the county weather the recession, and leaders argue that their workers must be made whole. The county has offered a 6% raise -- similar to what other labor groups in the county agreed to -- but the union has argued that increasing health premiums mean that low-wage workers would effectively see a pay cut.
Both sides declined to identify remaining sticking points, but there were signs of optimism Tuesday that an agreement was close.
William T Fujioka, the county's chief executive, posted a Twitter message saying, "Currently in negotiations with SEIU and hope to have an agreement soon." County spokesman David Sommers said he could not discuss specifics, "but our negotiating team says good things are happening at the table."
SEIU regional director Michael Green announced at the vigil, "They are starting to move …. We are making progress."
But SEIU Chief of Staff Gilda Valdez warned that until a deal was signed, the union would prepare to escalate their protests, including possible civil disobedience, sit-ins and walkouts.
"They need to understand that we're not playing anymore," she told the crowd.
[For the Record, 6:14 p.m. Nov. 22: An earlier version of this post said L.A. County and union negotiators were meeting inside the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels. They were meeting in a building on the grounds of the cathedral.]