The Tulare County Board of Supervisors (BOS) voted 5-0 at their August 26 meeting to file an Unfair Labor Practices Charge against SEIU. The decision came after an impassioned presentation by County Counsel Kathleen Bales-Lange that described SEIU’s inappropriate conduct during this year’s negotiations.
SEIU and the county were in negotiations from March to the end of July, when the two sides finally agreed on a contract. The new contract covers 2800 workers and represents SEIU bargaining units 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7. The agreement includes a 3% base wage increase and reinstates the sick leave buy-back program. Pay increases started in the August 10 pay period and showed up in the workers’ paychecks on September 2.
Bales-Lange said that there was no single smoking gun but a totality of circumstances that convinced her to ask the BOS to file charges against SEIU with the Public Employee Relations Board (PERB).
Bales-Lang started her presentation to the board with, “When is enough, enough?” a phrase coined in June by workers Kermit Wullschleger and Linda Castillo to express their frustration over the disparity between management raises and salaries compared to those of the rank-and-file. Bales-Lange repeated the phrase eight times during her presentation to emphasize her point that the BOS and county negotiators had put up with enough and that it was time to file charges.
She also invoked the phrase “Community First,” a motto that SEIU local 521 came up with to highlight the need to take care of the community of Tulare County workers. Bales-Lange implied that the union does not practice what it preaches.
“They had paid professionals from SEIU and paid employee negotiators. This was not a battle of David and Goliath,” said Bales-Lange.
According to a county press release, “county counsel stated that the union engaged in dilatory tactics, harassment and regressive bargaining, which shows an ongoing course of conduct that constitutes bad faith bargaining on behalf of the union and its representatives. Some of the bad faith activities of union representatives presented by counsel include being unprepared for bargaining, making false and misleading statements, and attempting to bypass county negotiators to deal directly with the board of supervisors on multiple occasions.”
The county outlined six main points in their “Statement of Charge” document to be filed with PERB. Each of their six charges is outlined in the “Political Fix” section of this paper with arguments illustrating the county’s case and SEIU defense.
Bales-Lange’s charge of bypassing county negotiators to deal directly with the BOS stems from when the employees decided to take their case to the media and community. At the June 3, June 17 and June 24 BOS meetings, county employees, some directly involved with the negotiations, spoke during public comment. Some workers had prepared statements that talked about their jobs and their personal hardships caused by low wages. Others pointed out what they thought was a waste of county money and the fact that the management and BOS had received raises over the last two years while the rank-and-file had not received a raise for eight years.
BOS and county counsel believe that the employees comments concerning salaries crossed the line of conducting negotiations directly with the BOS and were in violation of state rules regarding labor negotiations. According to the Visalia Times-Delta, Supervisor Cox said, “I don’t know of any other organization that’s ever come out and said let’s talk about this in open session. We know the rules of engagement. We can’t negotiate from the dais.” Supervisor Cox said after Bales-Lange’s presentation that he felt the employees had “suckered in the press to carry their bucket of water.”
On the other side of the table, the employees felt that negotiations were at a standstill and that the county would never budge. After ten sessions of no raise or bonuses offered, the employees started feeling like they were just negotiating with themselves. Bales-Lange claims that there was a sidebar offer of a 4% pay raise over two years, but the county’s lawyer never officially put the offer on the table, and employee negotiators didn’t see a raise in salary on the table until June 27, well after their public awareness efforts hit the newspapers.
Whether it is the employees’ legal right or not to address the board about negotiations is up for debate. According to Bales-Lange, it goes against fair labor practices. According to Joanne Salazar, an SEIU organizer, the county’s own lawyer told her it is every employees’ right to address the BOS.
After Bales-Lange’s presentation, Supervisor Steve Worthley reiterated that any one of these charges would be inadequate to file a case with PERB, but when you put them all together they illustrate SEIU’s intention to delay the negotiations, which is against labor law.
Supervisor Pete Vander Poel expressed reservations about spending $40,000 of taxpayer money on a case they might not win. Worthley countered that he understood Vander Poel’s reservations, but no lawsuit is ever a guaranteed win. He said that SEIU has shown a pattern of bad behavior and has engaged in conduct that is not lawful and that they show no signs of abatement. “If we don’t take steps now to address it, it will happen next year.”
Supervisor Allen Ishida said that when you have people work outside the boundaries of the law you have to do something. County Administrator Jean Rousseau expressed his frustrations with the employees by saying, “This is all the thanks we get for successfully pulling the county out of the Great Recession?
In their “Statement of Charge” filed with PERB, the county is asking for “Requested Relief.” If they win their case, they are asking that SEIU discontinue their bad faith bargaining practices and inform the employees of their conduct. The county is asking for their legal fees to be reimbursed and that SEIU reimburse their workers lost wages of $484,000 because of their delaying tactics.
A few years ago, SEIU also filed charges with PERB against the county and they are still winding their way through the system. Last month, PERB dismissed one of SEIU’s charges as without merit. If the county is found guilty of the other three charges, it could represent millions of dollars in compensation to the workers.
The county’s complaint will be finalized and filed with PERB within the next four weeks. According to the Visalia Times-Delta, “Cox said that if the county goes forward with it, he would be happy if the state agency determines that the union acted badly and just issues a warning to not do it again.” Cox was quoted as saying, “We don’t want them to act bad next time when negotiations on the next labor contract begin in about six months. I want them to come without a chip on their shoulders. I want them to come without the antics.”
Bargaining Unit 2 Still Working Without a Contract
In the middle of all the legal wrangling are the ongoing negotiations with Bargaining Unit 2 (BU2). BU2 joined SEIU in May. SEIU assumed that BU2 would be included in the contract negotiations with units 1, 3, 4, 6 and 7, but was told by the county that BU2 had to negotiate its contract separately. BU2 represents about 200 Tulare County custodial workers. They are in their fourth round of negotiations and the county has not offered any raises. The BU2 employee negotiators have asked for a onetime $1,200 bonus in place of a raise but the county stood firm on their pledge not to offer a wage increase or bonus. Their next negotiation will be September 10.