Tulare County employees turned up the heat last week on the Tulare County Board of Supervisors (BOS), conducting a protest march outside the council chambers and taking their message to Sacramento.
During a special evening session of the Tulare County BOS on June 24th, the Service Employee International Union (SEIU) Local 521 organized a march highlighting the stalled negotiations in the workers’ contracts. More than 70 employees and concerned citizens marched and sang outside of the supervisors’ chambers before filing inside for the meeting. The message is spreading throughout the area as several high-profile community leaders were in attendance. Sam Aguilera-Marrero, the congressional candidate challenging Devin Nunes for the 22nd District, was there to give her support. Rosaena Sanchez, former Lindsay mayor and current city council member, and Greg Gomez, vice mayor of Farmersville were also there supporting the workers.
During public comment, Tulare County employees came up individually to give personal testimony about their hardships; five of them, one for each county district, delivered each supervisor a stack of petitions. One of the last people to comment was Kathy Ninneman. She said that she came two years ago to speak about the raises the BOS gave themselves. “And I’m here to talk to you again,” Ninneman said. “It’s not fair that you gave yourself a raise while giving the employees nothing. It’s very disappointing as a citizen and we all vote.”
At issue are the workers’ contracts. The SEIU is asking for a three-year contract with an 8.74% raise. Their request is based on the board of supervisor’s pay raise during the last two years of 8.98%. The county has countered with a one-year contract and a 0% raise. The rank-and-file Tulare County employees have not received a raise since 2008, while some in management have received several.
The morning after the BOS meeting, a small group of Tulare County employees on the negotiating team took a van to Sacramento to meet with local lawmakers and members of the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit. Their first meeting was with the chief of staff of Assembly Member Adam Gray, who chairs the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit. His chief of staff met with the group and outlined the process they need to take to get on the committee’s agenda. Paperwork and documents need to be submitted by July 15th for consideration before putting Tulare County’s case on their agenda in August.
The negotiating team met next with an assistant to State Senator Jean Fuller, who encouraged the employees to persevere. “She seemed genuinely concerned and wanted to see if her office could be of any assistance,” said Kermit Wullschleger, a member of the county delegation. “They had received and carefully read all the letters we sent them and our petitions.” Fuller’s office offered to write the BOS a letter inquiring as to why their employees have not received an equity adjustment. To do this, the negotiating team needs to get her a copy of the county’s last offer of a 0% raise, which may or may not be in writing.
Before leaving Sacramento, the negotiating team also met with the assistants to 31st District Assembly Member Henry Perea, from Fresno, and the vice chair of the Joint Committee on Legislative Audit, Senator Ricardo Lara. The legislators reminded the negotiating team of the deadlines to request an audit, and wanted to be kept informed of the Tulare County employees’ progress with their contract.
Thursday morning it was back to Visalia and the negotiating table. According to Wullschleger, negotiations have been going on almost every week between a core group of employees and the county’s legal team since April, but their only offer, week after week, has been 0%. “We don’t even consider that an offer. Until we started going public, they were very dismissive of our requests.”
It seems that the rank-and-file finally have the BOS’ ear.
The BOS and Human Resources Department have not been happy about the protests and were shocked that the employees went to the media. To the employees and larger community it seemed to be a logical response.
“What did the board expect?” asked Wullshleger. The support and the publicity seem to have worked, because on June 27th the county finally started to move. After seven hours of negotiations, the county offered a raise which has lead to more productive talks between the two sides. No details about the negotiations will be divulged until an agreement is reached.
Working fulltime, taking care of extended family, and participating on the negotiating team seems to just strengthen Tulare County employee Linda Castillo’s resolve. At the evening BOS meeting last week, she spoke with grit about the county’s spending $280,000 on chairs and possibly another $1.8 million on car upgrades. It was recently discovered in a Kaweah Delta Hospital newsletter that Tulare County Health and Human Services had donated between $100,000 and $500,000 to the hospital’s foundation. These expenditures might not be the best use of Tulare County’s tax dollars, Castillo points out to anyone who will listen, and that Tulare County’s best resources aren’t cars or chairs. “Tulare County’s most precious and valuable resource is people, the Tulare County workers.”