The 17 members of Curry County’s Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have submitted the required 10-day notice of intent to strike after an “overwhelming” vote of approval Wednesday afternoon.
Unless a new offer is forthcoming from the board of county commissioners in the interim, the employees of Curry County will begin picketing Aug. 20 — the first time in county history.
“We don’t want it,” said union bargaining team member Anthony Pagano. “But, it’s like they went into executive session (Aug. 8) and they don’t tell us anything. That’s what’s scary; we don’t know what they’re saying in there. The (commissioner) meeting was jam-packed with people who wanted to talk about the strike, and they shut down public comment. I think everyone’s kind of worried, but everyone’s fed up with it, too.”
The Aug. 8 meeting was a workshop, at which the board typically doesn’t take public comment.
In preparation for a strike, County Administrator Clark Schroeder has directed all county managers, supervisors and department heads to grant no vacation or sick leave to any of those planning to strike, nor take leave themselves.
“All supervisors, managers and department heads will be expected to fully carry out their normal duties and those of the striking employees to the best of our ability,” he wrote in a memo. “This will be all-hands-on-deck, everyone chipping in and helping where they can, regardless of the department.”
He plans to hold a meeting to discuss what job duties will — and won’t — get done.
What they’ve sacrificed
The notice to strike was sent to the Oregon Employment Relations Board and Curry County; state law requires it to be submitted 10 days before a strike can begin.
“We are exercising our right to strike because the county negotiators have really left us no choice,” the notice reads. “Over the past few years, the employees of Curry County have continued to fall behind comparable to (other counties’) employees in terms of compensation and insurance coverage.
“This year, starting in February, we have been trying to negotiate for a modest cost of living increase, ‘step’ increases and a modest increase in the employer’s contribution to health care coverage that would help county employees maintain the levels of health care coverage for them and their families.”
The SEIU bargaining team, comprised of five union-member employees, wrote a letter outlining what they have done in past years to help the financially-strapped county.
“We have historically received step increases each year, but with the dismal outlook of finances in 2009, in an effort to help the county, we agreed to not take a COLA (cost of living adjustment) and to freeze the step increases — and continued to give them up for eight years,” the letter reads. “A couple of years ago, we also agreed to pay our own portion of the PERS retirement fee, with a comparable economic exchange. Last year we were successful in obtaining a step increase that brought us up to 2014 wages.”
In that time, the county has agreed to wage increases, health insurance payment increases and cost of living raises for the other bargaining unit (Teamsters), the letter continues. The SEIU members also maintain the county has:
•Replaced retiring managers at higher salaries than those retiring.
•Penned a $20,000 annual contract with a firm outside the county to operate the new audio-visual equipment.
•Hired a Bend attorney to speak for the commissioners during all labor negotiations at a rate of $285 per hour plus $100 per hour travel time and lodging costs.
•Approved an $86,000 annual salary plus a six-month severance pay for the new position of county administrator to do the work they (commissioners) should be doing.
•Paid a job recruiting firm for the services of an interim county administrator.
•Paid a job recruiting firm for a year to fill the positions of county administrator and accountant.
•Paid travel expenses for two out-of-state applicants to appear for interviews for the administrator position when the county had an interim person who was qualified and willing to take the position.
•When the elected officials received their raises this year, no negotiations were needed.
“Why does the cost have to be at the expense of the employees who do the daily functions to keep the county operating?” the letter continues. “We feel leadership always needs to budget for retaining the ‘worker bees.’ During the current labor negotiations, the county has consistently told us — through their hired attorney — they have nothing to offer us, even when we lower our requests.”
What they’re demanding
The union employees — they include everyone except the sheriff, department heads and elected officials — seek a 2.13 percent wage increase and two, one-half “step” increases per employee; and a $100 increase in the employer contribution to health-care coverage.
In a “final offer” this week, the county offered each union employee a $1,000, one-time “signing bonus” to keep the existing contract in place until next year, Schroeder said.
“This was the first time the county offered anything but zero,” the SEIU said in an email to the Pilot, adding that the members declined the one-time payment, “largely because the amounts are taxed in a way that would greatly reduce the payment.”
The union responded by reducing its original demand of increased step and COLA expenses, but the county refused that, as well.
Schroeder said the board prefers a one-time “bonus” because it would be less expensive for the county in the long run.
“The concern from the county is, we’re not generating any more money from property taxes, and if you continually add to base salaries and don’t get more revenue, you’re going to have to lay off people, Schroeder said. “At some point, you reach a breaking point.”
Pagano said the union members have reached theirs.
“In June, after four fruitless meetings where the county was being represented by a high-power lawyer from Bend, the county came out with its legally required ‘final offer,’” the notice reads. “And that offer was — zero. No changes. And that is all the more galling because, we believe, the county has set aside funds for its high-priced lawyer in fees and ‘expenses’ pretty close to what it would cost to meet our modest proposals.
“All the lawyer did to get that was to come to Curry County from Bend several times to sit at a table and say ‘no.’ Doesn’t seem like a wise or fair use of Curry County taxpayer’s money to us — the workers who provide services to Curry County taxpayers.
“That’s the framework for our decision to strike. The county leaves us no choice.”
The union members were required to get 75 percent approval to submit the intent to strike, Pagano said.
The board hired Bruce Bischof, a Bend attorney, to represent the county in the labor negotiations —a decision Commissioner Court Boice voted against.
Boice said Thursday he is not happy with the board’s stance.
“We did not amend the offer at all,” Boice said of Wednesday’s executive session discussion. “It’s just shocking, (the board) didn’t put anything at all on the table. It is absolutely unacceptable and unnecessary.”
Although he couldn’t provide details because discussion was in privileged executive session, Boice said he proffered an amended offer, but “couldn’t get either of them” — Commissioners Tom Huxley and Sue Gold — to go for it.
Huxley did not respond to an email before press deadline.
“That was all in executive session so I’m not going to comment on it,” Gold said. “Anything in executive session should stay there.”
“I’m discouraged, frustrated,” Boice said. “This is really bad business for this county. This is the last thing we need right now.”
When asked what the county’s back-up plan is — especially if the strike is prolonged — he said he doesn’t know.
“I wish I could answer that,” Boice said. “We’re going to need one. Everything is a reaction to the dysfunction of this board.”
He said soliciting employees from other counties won’t work. The idea of getting volunteers to cross picket lines probably won’t work, either: “They don’t want to be involved in this,” Boice said.
Mediation can still continue, and a strike could be averted, Pagano said. But whether the commissioners will agree to meet again to discuss the issue is unknown.
Boice said he just wants to get things accomplished.
Reach Jane Stebbins at firstname.lastname@example.org .