This budget’s a labor of love

April 22, 2011 

In some parts of the nation these days, public sector unions are battling a perception that they’re the bad guys—out only for themselves as government budgets dwindle and services wither. But in L.A. County, unions have another rep—as recession-savvy partners whose sacrifices are helping to save the day.

County unions, now going into their 3rd year of working without raises, have emerged as some of the improbable heroes of a proposed $23.3 billion budget which—at least for now—includes no layoffs or furloughs. The county’s situation is particularly striking in comparison to the city of Los Angeles, where generous employee pay raises gave way to a dire economic picture including both layoffs and unpaid furlough days.

People on both sides of the bargaining table attribute the county’s situation to sound financial stewardship before the economic collapse and to long-running collaborative relationships between the unions and the county’s elected and executive leadership.

Not to mention the fact that union leaders—correctly, as it turns out—anticipated that the downturn would be long and ugly, not a short-term blip, and could jeopardize jobs.

“We saw what was coming, and it wasn’t looking good,” said Steve Remige, a director of the Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs (ALADS) who was the organization’s president during the most recent rounds of contract negotiations. Doing without raises, under the circumstances, “was an easy sell to the membership.”

It was harder over at SEIU Local 721, where some members at least initially expected a shorter-lived recession. “Some thought it would be over in a year or two,” said Bob Schoonover, president of the local, which represents some 55,000 county workers “from custodians to nurses.” By toughing it out and agreeing to no raises, however, the members not only helped avoid layoffs in their ranks but also contributed to keeping public services afloat, he said.

“We agreed to a series of no-raise contracts…in order to keep services going at the level they need to be,” Schoonover said. “The county and SEIU have had a very good working relationship for the last few years. That’s to the benefit not only of the members but to the public.”

Because of the sheer size of the county workforce—salary and benefits for nearly 100,000 employees, most of them unionized, account for 40% of the budget—even a tiny cost-of-living adjustment carries a huge price-tag.

As it is, the proposed budget unveiled this week reveals a $220.9 million shortfall that the chief executive office says can be eliminated through, among other things, one-time funding, the elimination of vacant positions and department cutbacks—but without forcing anyone into unemployment.

And for that, Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky and others give substantial credit to the unions and their leadership.  “They made a tough decision for themselves and for their members,” he said.

Labor and management both credit the long tenure of the board majority—and the trust that has flowed from it—with creating the climate for union concessions.

“Good labor relations demand a certain longevity,” said Blaine Meek, counsel for the California Association of Professional Employees, which represents some 2,700 county employees in departments such as Public Works, Treasurer-Tax Collector and Assessor.

So when the Board of Supervisors made it clear that without union cooperation, the county’s fiscal health would suffer and workers would lose their jobs, the unions decided to play ball.

“At the end of the day, they went along with us,” Yaroslavsky said. “I think they wanted to do something statesmanlike. And the proof of the pudding is three years later, we haven’t laid off anybody and we haven’t furloughed anybody.”

Jim Adams, chief of employee relations for the county, said the current season of labor-management harmony is no mere “kumbaya thing.” He acknowledged that labor agreements in recent years have asked county employees to do without raises at a time when workloads are increasing and vacancy and promotional freezes are in place.

“These sacrifices have strained our employees at times,” Adams said.

But those sacrifices looked more palatable when compared to what was happening in other places.

“People were seeing layoffs and furloughs all around us,” Adams said. “They were seeing worse things going on elsewhere than a salary freeze.”

The austerity contracts started in early 2009 with ALADS and the county’s other public safety unions. Setting the stage for the negotiations with other county unions that would follow, they accepted no raises and a 50% reduction in the amount the county pays in deferred compensation. But they won a larger county contribution to their rising health insurance premiums.

Now, with small signs of a recovery on the way, county union members are keeping one eye on the local economy and the other on their union brethren around the nation.

“They see that public employees have been made a target in a bad economy, even as the demand for government services is rising,” said Meek, of the California Association of Professional Employees. “Yes, our members are anxious. Even their voice in collective bargaining is under attack.”

But in their dealings with L.A. County, there is a sense that sacrifices in bad times will be rewarded when things get better.

“There is an expectation,” Meek said, “that when conditions improve that we will go forward and get back to pay raises and addressing other issues.”

Or, as the SEIU’s Schoonover puts it: “We’re all hoping we return to whatever normal is.”

Posted 4/21/11

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