Biggest union reaches deal with California government

AP News
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Posted: Dec 03, 2016 4:47 PM

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — California's largest public-employee union announced Saturday that it had reached a contract agreement with Gov. Jerry Brown's administration.

If workers ratify the deal, it would bring to a close contentious negotiations that led to a strike threat and allegations of bad-faith bargaining.

Service Employees International Union Local 1000 didn't immediately release the terms of the deal, but union President Yvonne Walker said in a statement that it achieves improvements in compensation, professional development, working conditions, and health and safety.

"This is a victory we achieved by thousands of members standing together across the state, taking action in our worksites, and having an unrelenting willingness to strike if it became necessary," she said. "Together we showed the state the power of our commitment to each other, to our families and to our communities."

The union 1000 represents 95,000 workers in nine of California's 21 bargaining units. They include office and administrative workers, librarians, engineering and scientific technicians, and registered nurses, among others.

Union members voted last month to support a one-day strike after leaders said the state had refused to budge from its opening offer on compensation — 12 percent wage increases over four years that the union said would be offset by a 3.5 percent employee contribution to retirees' health care. The union had argued the state is flush with cash from a booming economy and can afford a larger raise.

The strike that had been planned for Monday threatened to disrupt operations around the state on the same day newly elected lawmakers were to take the oath of office in Sacramento.

Brown's administration maintained that the strike was an illegal violation of the union's contract and sought a court order to block it. A Sacramento County judge declined to issue an injunction on Friday. Hours later, union leaders called off the strike, saying negotiators from both sides felt they had found a pathway forward.

As a centerpiece of his negotiations with state workers, Brown has sought to require that workers contribute a portion of their pay to cover health care benefits for retirees.

The state has promised an estimated $72 billion in health care benefits for its current and future retirees, an amount that will increase to more than $300 billion over the next three decades, according to the governor's Department of Finance.

The bill for retiree health care has historically been paid year-by-year. Brown proposes prefunding benefits similar to the way the state pays for pensions — by paying into a trust fund that accrues investment returns over time, reducing the amount of money that taxpayers must contribute in the future.

Sen. Richard Pan, a Sacramento Democrat who chairs the committee overseeing employee compensation, said the state needs to maintain competitive wages and benefits to continue to attract quality workers. "As we've gone through the recession and now we're pulling out of it, the state workers have taken a lot of hits over time," Pan said last week before the deal was reached.

Conservative groups have criticized public-employee compensation as extravagant.