CARSON — After six months of unsuccessful contract negotiations, Carson and its largest employees' union agreed this week to call in a state mediator to help resolve what many believe is the city's lengthiest labor dispute.
The agreement to seek help from the state Mediation/Conciliation Service, reached during a brief meeting Monday, comes more than 3 1/2 months after a two-year contract expired for 220 of Carson's estimated 300 permanent employees. In the interim, the city has twice extended the employees' old contract.
"Perhaps the mediator is the answer," said Mayor Kay Calas. "I hope so. These are the longest negotiations I've ever seen in Carson."
But although Calas and other elected leaders say they hope that mediation can help resolve the dispute over salary and benefits--which has been nearly deadlocked since late August--both sides of the negotiating team say there are indications that a settlement may not be imminent.
'Preparing for Worst'
"We're hoping for the best, but preparing for the worst," said Pete Schnaufer, a representative for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Local 809, which has already unanimously voted to stage a sickout if a contract is not signed by Nov. 8, the day after the planned meeting with the state mediator.
Schnaufer continued: "The signals that the city management team is throwing out are that they plan to go through with this on a perfunctory basis to add legitimacy to the proposals they've offered."
But the city's chief negotiator, Assistant City Atty. Lee Paterson, countered that the vote for a sickout "obviously indicates they do not expect to reach a settlement by Nov. 7. It shows they've hardened their position and don't expect to make concessions."
Indeed, agreement on seeking help from a mediator is one of the few accords reached during the divisive contract negotiations. Each side says the other is making unreasonable demands; each blames the other for excessive delays; each says the other has engaged in deliberate miscommunication.
"I think the city is at fault for the delay, but I don't think the City Council has gotten the word about what's been going on," said Nancy Severtson, union president, adding that council members have not seen the union's written offers and have been misinformed about what employees are asking for. (The city's negotiating team is composed of Paterson, the personnel director and the finance director.)
Unaware of Position
"We have the balance sheet," insisted Councilwoman Vera Robles DeWitt. "I'm not sure all the employees are aware of the city's position."
DeWitt said that officials this week agreed in closed session to distribute a fact sheet to city workers explaining Carson's most recent offer, which a majority of the City Council previously voted to support as its "final" offer.
The union has not formally voted on that offer, presented in late August, but members have consistently expressed their dissatisfaction with it, Severtson said. "We explained it to the membership and they said, 'No way.' "
In fact, employees have many times expressed those sentiments in public. Workers have picketed outside City Hall on many occasions during the last several months. This week employees made perhaps their greatest public showing at Monday's City Council meeting, where more than 100 city workers jammed council chambers to voice their discontent with the contract impasse and to complain to officials about eroding employee morale.
'We Have Bills'
"We have families, we have houses, we have bills to pay," said worker Jeff Halbea. "We just want a fair, decent contract."
"Morale has been very low," said Mary Louise Mavian, a finance counselor for four years and treasurer of the city union. "Employees are feeling as if they have been punished, not rewarded, for being good. Employees would like to see some measure of fairness in the negotiations."
Many officials agree that the delay has affected morale in City Hall. While most say that the impasse has not hurt city services because the employees are proud of their city and about 67% of them live in Carson, some suggest that subtle changes may be starting to take place.
"Any time you have an unhappy situation with the employees, it affects the city," said Councilman Walter J. Egan. "Normally good employees with outstanding work records suddenly take unexpected days off without notice; complaints come in about certain services that have had delays in coming."
Egan and other council members declined to comment on who is to blame for the contract impasse, saying they do not want to jeopardize negotiations. Many employees, however, blame Paterson, the city's chief negotiator, for the stalemate, saying that he uses "hardball" tactics at the negotiating table and is interested only in furthering his labor-law career by negotiating a "take-away" contract.
'No Vested Interest'