San Jose spotlight: Strike begins for thousands of Santa Clara County workers

by Adam F. Hutton
October 2, 2019

After months of negotiations with Santa Clara County, thousands of its workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 521 went on strike Wednesday morning — a protest that hasn’t happened in 40 years.

“We are striking because there is a crisis in Santa Clara County when it comes to public services,” said Social Worker Supervisor Veronica Moreno de Leon, 46.

The union says workers will picket starting at 6 a.m. today at various locations. Union leaders added that protests would take place “throughout the county with no end date currently announced.”

Members of the local voted to go on strike in August and the South Bay Labor Council gave its sanction to the strike last month. Local 521 represents nearly 12,000 county workers including teachers, bus drivers, hospital employees, social workers, parks maintenance crews and staff at the county jails. And although members of the local voted to strike in 2011 and more recently in 2015 — this is the first time in four decades that employees actually stopped work to protest.

Santa Clara County officials say they have been preparing for a work stoppage and plan to continue services with minimal disruption during the strike. Union bosses and county administrators have been locked in negotiations for six months, butting heads over better pay, health and child care benefits.

“We are planning for the SEIU work stoppage and have contingency plans in place to ensure county services are maintained to the greatest extent possible,” County Executive Officer Jeff Smith told San José Spotlight Thursday.

Late Tuesday night the county issued an update on the negotiations from its side of the bargaining table.

According to county leaders, Santa Clara County has offered SEIU “significant increases in salary and benefits” amounting to $625 million over five years. If that proposal were extended to all of the county’s unions, officials said the total salary and benefits budgeted cost over five years would exceed $1.5 billion.

“There has been a difference of opinion between the County and SEIU about the projection of revenue in the future. The County is very concerned about an economic downturn, and slowing revenue growth,” Smith said in a statement Tuesday. “The county is not only worried about a fair wage and an equitable contract, but also making sure the contract and associated salaries are sustainable in the future. The union has focused on recent revenue trends that were stronger, but future revenues are not expected to be nearly as strong.”

Smith remained optimistic that his negotiating team would reach an agreement with the union eventually.

“We’ll continue to negotiate until we have an agreement,” Smith said in an interview last week.

But, in Tuesday’s late night update, Smith said he has to consider the county’s long-term financial prospects when negotiating.

“Maintaining existing county services, making prudent spending decisions, and agreeing on fair but sustainable union contracts is essential to the county’s future fiscal health,” Smith said.

But Local 521 Chief Elected Officer Riko Mendez says it’s not about better pay and benefits. Rather, the union leader says his members went on strike to force the county to invest in the services its workers provide.

“We’re not going to let them put the most vulnerable people in our community in jeopardy,” Mendez said at a rally last week. “We’re going to stand for the kids, we’re going to stand for the elderly, we’re going to stand for the homeless, we’re going to stand for the sick. We’re going to stand for the entire community — that’s what this strike is about.”

The work stoppage is the latest in a series of recent protest actions taken by members of the union. Last week hundreds of workers rallied in the plaza outside the County Government Center then rode the elevators up to the 11th-floor office of Smith’s to confront him.

Fourteen members of the union were arrested the week before in an act of civil disobedience for blocking traffic to protest the county’s plans to close a resource center for the county’s Social Services Agency in East San Jose.

“I don’t think anybody wants to strike, but we’re ready,” said Valerie Pickering, 60, a social worker supervisor with the county’s Department of Family and Children’s Services. She was among those arrested two weeks ago, along with Mendez and Moreno de Leon.

Pickering is a member of the union’s bargaining team who’s been at the negotiating table since April. She is one of ten supervisors managing about 80 social workers in the emergency response unit, which investigates allegations of child abuse and neglect.

“Retaining social workers is hard,” Pickering told San José Spotlight. “Housing and childcare are very expensive in this county. So many of our workers rely on relatives and friends for help.”

None of that would be necessary, union leaders say, if the county provided adequate child care benefits or paid its workers enough to afford the cost of living in the county.

“We want to make sure that Santa Clara County is a place that all of us can live, not just the wealthy few,” Mendez said.

Contact Adam F. Hutton at [email protected] or follow @adamfhutton on Twitter.