On the verge of having their contract with Los Angeles County expire, labor organizers on Thursday urged their members to participate in a march and rally next week.
“Our purpose right now is to make sure we send a message to the media, educate the public and we tell the county what they are proposing is unacceptable,” said Norma Herrera, a worksite organizer with SEIU Local 721, which represents 55,000 county workers.
Speaking to more than 50 workers gathered at lunchtime outside the Hall of Administration in downtown Los Angeles, she said, “The most powerful part of any contract is the threat of the workforce.”
The current contract expires at midnight on Monday, and there is no chance that a new one could be ratified before the rally next Tuesday.
The county Board of Supervisors’ cancelled their weekly meeting that day, an action Herrera called “cowardly” and attributed to the labor dispute. County officials say the meeting was cancelled on Sept. 10 when supervisors realized they would not have a quorum.
The proposal on the table is similar to one accepted by several other bargaining units. It calls for workers to receive a 6% raise over 30 months. Other proposals are being debated, including raising the amount employees pay for their medical coverage.
In fliers sprinkled around the Hall of Administration urging participation in a “Day of Action,” SEIU argues that for low-wage workers, the cost of health care is greater than the raise, resulting in a pay cut.
Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky, while declining to discuss negotiations in detail since bargaining is ongoing, said the union is describing a “worst-case scenario.” He said the county does not want to see employees’ pay cut, and he noted that the medical premium is one of many pieces still being negotiated.
“That’s a subject of negotiation and they know that and we know that,” he said, while complimenting the union for agreeing to have salaries remain flat during recent years because of the recession -- a move that allowed the county to avoid layoffs or furloughs. But now, “they are postulating a scenario where they get nothing and we get everything. That’s not what negotiating is about.”
Labor leaders, however, evoked the specter of union fights in Ohio and Wisconsin in arguing that any impingement on their compensation will lead to a slippery slope.
“It’s a bigger fight, it’s not how it used to be before,” Herrera said.
SEIU leaders said they project that 5,000 of their members will take to the streets downtown, ending with a rally and lunch outside county headquarters. Workers are being asked to request time-off. But if they can't get it, union leaders said they can still attend the rally and not be fired or suspended -- although they might face other discipline.
But the prospect of large numbers is questionable. At the county Hall of Administration, where 1,200 SEIU members work, fewer than 50 had signed up to participate.
Looking at the small crowd Thursday, Herrera said, “We walked these halls up and down -- people know about today. On Oct. 1, this cannot be repeated. I don't care what you do, I don't care who you drag, you’ve got to get your coworkers out here.”
Assessor’s office employee Monica Lopez, 47, said she plans to participate out of frustration -- county workers gave up raises for nearly five years to help the county navigate the recession and need to be made whole, she said.
“When you’ve been hearing the same promises year after year and had no results, the frustration starts leading to resentment,” said the Montebello resident.