Even after being warned by union leaders about the serious consequences of a strike, Orange County sheriff's deputies Wednesday night laughed at the county's latest wage offer and cheered at suggestions of a walkout.
To applause, Robert MacLeod, general manager of the deputies' union, said finally: "We'll all probably get to go fishing within the next week to 10 days."
One deputy responded: "Let's go fishing tomorrow."
The union has been threatening a strike since it concluded an eight-day work slowdown on Aug. 27 that caused delays in the county's criminal courts.
The meeting Wednesday night and another in the morning that included about 500 deputies--almost half of the union--was called to consider a new wage offer the county made last Thursday.
The union let a reporter into the night meeting on condition that the names of rank-and-file members and the specific job actions discussed not be reported. Union leaders said they wanted to be sure that county officials and the public are aware that the deputies are prepared for an imminent strike.
Contract talks have ended. Unless they are resumed, union officials say the next step will be some sort of job action.
'Got to Hit Them'
MacLeod told the audience that the county's last offer brought the two sides closer, but was still not acceptable. The deputies enthusiastically agreed.
"We've got to hit them," one deputy said. "They know they're wearing us down. What I'm saying is how much further are we going to go."
"No further!" another member shouted.
A 10-year department veteran stood up and told the crowd: "The only way we're going to get what we want is by sticking together. And, by God, I say go down together."
In response to a question, MacLeod told the crowd that he has been meeting with at least five other unions and that it is likely their members will also walk off their jobs if the deputies order a job action.
"I'm sure that when we begin actions, they will begin too," MacLeod said. "They are waiting to see what we do."
In all, eight unions are negotiating with the county this year. Their membership includes firefighters, marshals, mechanics, road repair crews, welfare clerks, landfill operators, janitors, sewage treatment workers and technicians for heating and cooling systems in county buildings.
To another deputy who, like many, complained that the union had already waited too long to call a walkout, Jerry Pierson, president of the union, said: "We would have been in a job action last week if it weren't for Wyatt Hart." He was referring to the mediator who called a last-minute meeting of the two sides last Thursday.
Wednesday night's meeting was short of militant and mostly quiet while the union leadership explained the county's latest offer and the job actions it is considering. But the crowd erupted into cheers and hoots about a dozen times during the one-hour discussion when the possibility of a strike or job action was proposed.
At one point, when MacLeod asked the audience whether anybody wanted to consider the county's last offer, a couple members laughed out loud. Nobody said yes. Seconds later, there were cheers when he asked about support for a walkout.
MacLeod said there was also no support for the county's latest offer in the union's morning meeting.
Three Offers on Table
There was some concern among the membership about 100% participation in a walkout. Some members urged the group to try to convince any deputies who aren't committed.
"Let's get those fence-sitters, and there are a few, and talk to them," one member said.
The county has three wage offers on the table, two that would last 28 months and another for one year.
The latest pay-raise offer is about one percentage point higher--from 12.5% to a 13.5% over 28 months--than the county had previously proposed. But in the most recent offer, the county has insisted that it maintain control over the deputies' medical benefits.
The union has asked that the county give it the money set aside for medical insurance so that the union can buy its own plan. MacLeod said a medical plan that just covered the deputies would be cheaper because the average age of the deputies is much lower than that of the average county employee.
Deputies contribute about $90 per month toward their medical plans, MacLeod said. If the union took control of the program, he said, monthly payments would be reduced or eliminated.
The union has demanded a wage increase that is a percentage point lower than the county's latest offer--12.5%--over the 28 months. But the package includes control of the medical plan and much more money in the first year.
The union has demanded a 4.25% raise retroactive to July when its contract expired. The county offer includes a $1,000 lump sum payment in December and no increase in base pay.
A second 28-month county proposal includes a 3.5% raise in April, 1988, but its second-year raise is about 4 points less than the county's other plan.
In the one-year contract proposals, the county has offered a 2.5% raise; the union has demanded 6%.