The conflict between Mayor Libby Schaaf’s administration and city workers is intensifying after Oakland officials declared an impasse in negotiations with two major employee unions just before their labor contracts expire on June 30, the same day as the deadline for submitting the new city budget.
The city proclaimed the impasse on June 11 with Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, which represents about 2,000 city employees; and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, representing about 1,000 workers. Both unions have been meeting with the city’s representatives for months, Local 1021 in about 20 negotiating sessions since the end of March and Local 21 in about 15 sessions since February.
Until the declaration of impasse, negotiations were continuing and had not stalled, according to the unions. Undiscussed issues were still on the table. The city is engaging in “bad faith bargaining,” said union leaders, who are filing a complaint against the city with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB).
The city has proposed mediation, an action that the unions view as an attempt to put pressure on them. Though they argue that city’s declaration is premature, the unions say they are willing to participate in mediation.
In recent years, the city’s negotiating team consisted of City of Oakland staff. This year, the administration relied on an outside consultant, Sloan Sakai, which has a reputation among union members as a hostile or “union busting” law firm.
The city is offering a 2 percent raise per year, 4 percent for the next two years, as well as a number of takeaways, according to city workers, who say they need to keep up with the rate of inflation. The cost of living in the Bay Area increased almosst 4 percent in the past year, say the unions.
Workers’ wages fell far behind between 2008 and 2014, and many say they cannot afford to continue to live in Oakland, and some are straining to pay for long commutes from where they were forced to move.
Another major issue facing the city are large numbers of unfilled employee positions, which undermines the ability of workers to adequately perform their jobs and overwhelms them with excessive workloads, often having to scramble to do the duties of two, three or four employees, according to workers. There are currently over 600 vacant positions in the city, including public works, housing and transportation jobs.
During the City Council’s budget deliberations, the dispute between the unions and the administration has taken center stage. City workers filled Council Chambers both at last week’s and Tuesday evening’s council meetings.
Speaking at the meeting, Local 1021 member Jeff Robbins, talked about the shortages of employees in the department where he works as a licensed heavy equipment mechanic.
He said the department is short four mechanics and cannot hire anyone because “other municipalities pay $10 more per hour with less requirements.”
“All city heavy equipment passes through us, including fire equipment,” he said. “We never want a shortage of equipment when fires need to be put out (or) trees need to be trimmed.”
“We’re the hub of the wheel – don’t let the wheel fall off.”
Local 1021 bargaining team co-chair and Chapter President Felipe Cuevas, also a heavy equipment mechanic, talked about the many unfilled vacancies exist in many city departments.
“Local 1021 has more than 300 vacancies, an over 17 percent vacancy rate,” he said . “I’ve seen vehicles sometimes wait for months to be repaired. These vehicles are not available to provide services to the public: fire trucks are not on the road, potholes are not getting fixed, sewers are not being inspected and maintained.”
“In the past we had to close fire houses because the equipment hasn’t been available,” he said. “No one has heard about that.”
Cuevas said the behavior of the city’s negotiators, Sloan Sakai, has been “so disrespectful.”
“They’ve basically said we’re not even going to discuss some of (our) proposals. They’re simply union busters.”
Also criticizing the city’s negotiating consultants, Local 1021 chief steward Dwight McElroy said, “I’ve been bargaining in this city for 25 years, and I’ve never seen such disrespect as we have seen at this table.”
Look at Sloan Sakai’s website, he said. “It is braggadocious about union busting (and) braggadocious about” taking away local cities’ retiree benefits.
McElroy told the council, “We know you’ve been stonewalled. We know you haven’t been given documents that you requested, to make educated decisions.”
Nina Hernandez, a part-time library worker, said, “We went out (in the last strike) because 2 percent was never going to cut it for this staff. And it is never going to cut it, ever, because 2 percent makes us poorer at the end of the contract than we were at the beginning of the contract.”
Anthony Reese, chapter vice president of Local 21, said the city’s contract proposal contributes to gentrification by failing to keep up with the increased cost of living. “It’s clear that the mayor does not want us to live and work here,” he said.
Cheryl Dunaway, a 22-year city employee and a Local 21 member, said she became homeless and had to leave the city.
“I work in Oakland, but I can’t afford to live in Oakland,” she said. “I used to, but now I can’t. I commute around four hours a day.”
“Some of our employees are homeless but are too ashamed to admit it,” Dunaway continued. “I was one of them. I was blessed that I have family that loves me, that took me in. But a lot of us don’t have that. They’re sleeping in cars, bunking with family members, they are sleeping on garage floors.”
She said employees will not accept a 2 percent increase and takeaways.
“If you are not willing to work with us, all of us are going to walk out the door. And you’ll be left with yourselves,” she said.