Contract negotiations have grown so volatile that some labor leaders representing Los Angeles County public employees have proposed that county services be cut, a step they concede could cost thousands of workers their jobs.
The highly unusual proposal, made by a coalition of 10 county employee unions at a recent contract bargaining session--and quickly rejected by the county--was greeted with open skepticism by management negotiators.
While the unions' cutback proposal was not specific, county officials said that between 1,500 and 5,000 jobs would be at stake, depending on which services were trimmed and how large a contract settlement the two sides reached. Union representatives acknowledged that thousands of jobs could be affected.
"In my 35 years in this business (contract negotiations) I've never heard a union representative say anything like it," said Phil Stone, the county's lead negotiator. "At first I thought they were kidding and I told them so."
Union representatives, however, say that their proposal was made in earnest. Although conceding that service cuts would cost them members, labor leaders representing such diverse workers as probation officers, firefighters, sheriff's deputies and engineers agree that such a drastic step may now be necessary to avert another one: a countywide strike.
This dim forecast comes from union officials who less than two months ago were confidently predicting early settlements.
'They're Fed Up'
"Our membership is pretty complacent and are professional and do not have a tendency to overreact to situations. But quite frankly, they're fed up," said Larry Dolson, head of the California Assn. of Professional Employees, representing about 1,500 of the county's planners, engineers and assessor deputies.
Contracts between the county and most of its work force of 71,000 expired two weeks ago without agreements with any of 21 unions involved. Although talks are continuing under contract extensions, labor leaders are warning that Sept. 30 will be the final deadline for a settlement.
"We're not going to extend one minute beyond," vowed Les Robbins, head of the 3,850-member union representing sheriff's deputies. Robbins, whose union is seeking an 8% pay raise, said the deputies will meet soon to discuss whether a job action will be authorized.
Already in recent weeks there have been signs that the labor peace that has generally existed between the county and its employee unions for the last five years is in danger. Hundreds of employees have engaged in scattered sickouts in apparent protest over the stalled contract talks.
Last week, apparent sickouts were staged by nearly 800 clerical employees against the district attorney's family support division, the county registrar-recorder's office and the Probation Department, according to county officials. Last Friday, in the second such action in a week, nearly 100 welfare workers stayed home on a one-day sickout. An official of the union representing those workers predicted that similar job actions will resume Monday.
Since 1966, when California's public employees won the right to bargain collectively, there have been 49 short-term work stoppages, such as sickouts and job slowdowns, of one kind or another against the county. Full-fledged strikes were illegal and there were none.
But the use of a widespread strike looms as a possibility because of a state Supreme Court ruling in May extending the right to strike to government employees, although specifically exempting firefighters. (County officials said that while the ruling does not include sheriff's deputies, there may be a legislative attempt to bar them from striking.)
County officials are privately concerned that union leaders may be under pressure from their members to call a walkout this year, and consequently have been planning for several months for any type of work stoppage.
At the core of the dispute are union demands for salary increases averaging about 5% a year and a hike in fringe benefits. The unions argue that in the recently expired two-year contract, employees received no pay hike in the first year and only a 5% raise in the second. The county, according to union leaders, has proposed reductions in certain fringe benefits, such as sick leave and paid holidays, to finance a three-step plan for a 2% raise beginning Jan. 1, with two other 2% pay hikes in 1987.
"We could wind up owing the county money to work here," complained Phil Giarrizzo, general manager of Service Employes International Union, Local 660, which bargains for 40,000 county workers.
Management negotiators refuse to discuss details of the county's offers.