On July 21st, the county’s negotiating team and the Tulare County employee’s union signed a tentative agreement for a one-year contract with a 3% raise. The agreement had to be approved by the union members and the Tulare County Board of Supervisors (TCBOS) before the new worker’s contract became official. About 350 county employees voted, and 325 voted in favor of the one-year contract. On July 29th, the TCBOS voted in closed session to accept the agreement. The raise is scheduled to show up in the county employee’s payroll on their September 2nd paycheck.
The contract brings to a close five months of intense and at times contentious negotiations. “I’m very pleased it has come to a conclusion. It’s been an interesting process,” said Tulare County Supervisor Phil Cox. He believes that the protests before supervisors meetings, marches down Mooney, and the coordinated speaking during the public comment, was a campaign to shame the supervisors into giving in to the union’s demands. During their public comments Cox pointed out that the county employees never mentioned that Supervisors Steve Worthley and Vander Poel declined the pay raises offered them.
Referring to the SEIU, Cox said, “It was a well-orchestrated plot to discredit the supervisors and I’m not a conspiracy theorist.”
Saying that the county offered nothing during the first round of contract negotiations, Cox felt was an outright lie. He explained that the county offered, in the first two rounds of negotiations, to pay the rising healthcare premiums of employees with a $1,000 deductable and to pay for the Animal Shelter employees’ uniforms. “That’s not offering ‘nothing,’” said Cox. “When you are a bad actor it just makes you look bad. A lot of the public comments made were inappropriate and inaccurate and we just had to sit there and take it.”
Unlike the Service Employees International Union, the supervisors did not want to comment to the press or the public while the negotiations were in process.
As far as the county’s negotiating team, Cox felt that they made no misleading comments nor said any half-truths.
Cox said that it was always the county’s plan to offer a 3% raise. “You stand in a hole and they shoot for the moon, then you come together in the middle. That’s how it works. To negotiate in good faith you have to show movement.” He went on, “I hate to compare them to children but their negotiating team came ill-prepared.” He said he could also sense dissention between the union and the rank-and-file employees.
Cox’s assessment of how a negotiating process should work is exactly what happened. The county started low and the SEIU started high. The SEIU workers started off in late March by asking for an 8.74% raise over the course of three years. They based their request on what the supervisors had given themselves – except for Worthley and Vander Poel. On the other side of the table, the county offered to pay for uniforms and cover increases in health care premiums for those with a $1,000 deductable.
Negotiations stalled during the subsequent meetings. The employees continued to request for a pay raise but the county didn’t look like they were going to budge from their 0% offer. As a strategy to get the negotiations moving, several county employees spoke during public comment at the June 3rd supervisors’ meeting. They also organized a protest during the special night supervisors meeting the following week. The county employees took a trip to Sacramento the next day to talk to the Joint State Legislative Audit Committee to ask if Tulare County could be put on their agenda for possible mismanagement of funds.
The day after returning from Sacramento, the TCBOS offered a one-year contract at a 3% raise. The employees countered with a 5% raise and a $1,000 payout for all employees as a consolation for not getting a raise for the past six years. The county said no, and the employees then asked for a 3% raise with a $500 payout to which the county also said no. According to Kermit Wullschleger, a member of the employee negotiating team, when they calculated the lost wages if they did not agree to a contract now they decided to drop their request for the a payout and let the union employees vote on the county’s offer.
Whereas Cox says that a 3% raise was always in the cards, SEIU feels that getting the public and media involved turned the tide in the negotiations. Whoever is correct, the entire process will start again in eight months.
Wullschleger said next year’s negotiations will focus on improved health benefits and equity adjustments. Wullschleger told the Foothills Sun Gazette, “the lowest paid employees pay the highest percentage of their health insurance while the highest paid employees pay the lowest share of health coverage.
The equity adjustments would compensate those county employees whose salaries have fallen far behind their fellow workers. Concerning the health benefits, Wullschleger said, “Because management is given more money from the county to pay for their benefits, most of them are fully covered. Non-management employees are not given as much money to cover their health insurance and land in programs with a $1,000 deductable.” The result is a low wage earner with a $1,000 deductible is never going to go see a doctor unless they are dying because they can’t afford the deductible.
Wullschleger expressed his motivation to be on the negotiating team. “I want people to know they have value. When I get up to speak, I am doing what I can for my fellow employees. The county does not give them the respect that they deserve. This is not just about money. This is about standing up and not just making a difference for yourself but improving the world at the same time.”