One of Orange County's longest and most divisive labor battles came closer to resolution late Thursday when the sheriff's deputies union announced that it had reached a tentative wage agreement with the county.
Robert MacLeod, general manager of the union, said Thursday night that he was tired but relieved after the more than two days of touch-and-go marathon bargaining that produced the tentative accord.
MacLeod said the union will schedule a meeting of its 1,100 members for Monday and recommend that they adopt the contract. He said details of the agreement will be kept confidential until after the vote.
The accord is planned to be presented to the supervisors for approval Tuesday, he said. County officials were unavailable for comment late Thursday.
"Under the circumstances, I think our members are going to be real pleased," MacLeod said. "This one came real close. I don't know how much closer you could come."
The latest talks began just as the deputies were on the brink of their most drastic job action--a countywide walkout of officers guarding the jails and patrolling unincorporated areas.
County officials threatened to respond with an immediate court injunction. But over the past two months, the sentiment of the deputies had grown increasingly vigilant.
The showdown was barely averted Tuesday evening when the county called union officials with a new wage offer, just an hour before they were set to announce the walkout.
The two sides then negotiated over pizza from separate rooms until about 3 a.m. Wednesday morning and then again until almost midnight Wednesday. After resuming the talks at noon Thursday, the agreement was finally announced and signed just after 9 p.m.
MacLeod said he thinks the union leadership will have to sell the agreement to its members, but he expects that it will be ratified.
"In the past, they have always followed any recommendation of our bargaining team," he said.
A contract agreement would be a much-needed milestone for the county because it still faces bitter negotiations with up to seven other employee groups. Like the deputies, all of the other groups have been working without contracts since July.
The other unions still waiting for agreements include the county's firefighters, court marshals, welfare clerks, heavy machinery crews, road repair workers, landfill operators, clerical workers and mechanics.
To some extent, other union officials say they have been waiting to force their demands until they see what kind of agreement the deputies get.
Fred Lowe, director of the Service Employees International Union, said after the tentative agreement Thursday night that a final resolution should set a precedent for the other unions.
"The sheriff's (deputies) historically will be the ones who will settle, and then that becomes the pattern settlement for the other groups," Lowe said. "I can tell you right now, our organization expects to be offered . . . a similar settlement."
County officials say they have been forced to be tough negotiators because of budget shortages. In post-Proposition 13 California, they say all of the state's counties have been squeezed between the tax-cutting initiatives and the tightening state and federal purse strings.
Before Tuesday, the county had three offers on the table in the deputies' negotiations. Two of the contract offers would last 27 months and the third for one year.
Under the one-year plan, the county has offered a 2.5% raise in April and the union has demanded 6% retroactive to July.