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Workers March, Then Authorize County Strike


Urged on by rousing speeches from the Rev. Jesse Jackson and their union leaders, thousands of whistling, chanting county workers marched through Downtown Los Angeles on Tuesday in protest of county budget cutbacks and layoffs and then voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if no agreement is reached with the county before contracts expire later this month.

At an evening session after the march that had the flavor of a revival meeting, nearly all of an estimated 2,500 members of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, whose contracts expire on Sept. 30, shouted "Yes" to a strike if an agreement is not reached with the county. Only a few people voiced opposition.

Union leaders had been set to collect individual ballots but dispensed with the plan after the workers, who filled the cafeteria of the Department of Water and Power building, began shouting "Strike, strike, strike."

The outcome of the vote was sealed when Jackson, evoking such civil rights heroes as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., exhorted the workers to "stand up for their dignity.

"If Rosa Parks can stand up in the seat of the confederacy, cannot Local 660 stand up in Los Angeles? If Martin Luther King Jr. can go to Memphis and lose his life for a garbage worker's job, cannot you stand up for your own job in California?" asked Jackson.

The crowd roared and chanted in unison, "Shut the county down."

Union leaders were delighted.

"This is the new day for Local 660 and our relationship with the Board of Supervisors. This is the day we take back our county," said 660 general manager Gilbert Cedillo.

Earlier, an estimated 7,500 people representing labor, religious and community groups--many of them county workers who had walked off the job--berated county officials for approving a budget that exacts deep cuts in health and welfare services and workers' benefits.

The county is demanding that workers take an 8.25% pay cut as "their share of the burden." The strike authorization sets up the most serious labor dispute ever between the county and its employee unions.

"I've spoken to 3,500 workers at different sites this week, and they are absolutely unwilling to step back from where they're at financially," said Cedillo. The union represents about half of the county's 80,000-member work force, including clerks, librarians and health care workers.

Many county workers who took part in the march and rally bolstered Cedillo's stand.

"Nobody can afford a pay cut; we'll have to take second jobs," said Lydia Sy, who said she has worked in the county registrar-recorder office for 14 years and earns about $22,000. Sy said that about 40 of her colleagues who work in a registrar's office in Norwalk had walked out to join the rally. "Only our supervisor is left behind," Sy said.

Anita Agers, a clerk in the mental health department, said she earns about $19,000 a year and can barely afford to provide for her two children.

"I live paycheck to paycheck," Agers said. "If I have to take a pay cut, I told my mother that I will be moving back in again."

The county, facing the worst financial crisis in its history, last month passed a $13.5-billion budget that touches nearly every county department but falls particularly hard on health and welfare services. Budget measures call for closing 24 health clinics and 43 public libraries, laying off about 2,000 county employees, slashing benefits for general relief recipients and imposing a countywide 8.25% pay cut.

It is the last measure that has most rankled workers. The county must wring $215 million in pay and benefit cuts from workers to meet its budget needs. Union leaders assert that the county is trying to balance the budget on the backs of its employees and have offered up the prospect of an unprecedented general strike.

The objects of the demonstrators' wrath--the members of the County Board of Supervisors--were nowhere in site, having canceled their regular Tuesday morning meeting because of a lack of a quorum. Board Chairman Ed Edelman issued a statement saying that he understood the protesters' frustrations.

"I understand and share the frustrations of employees arising from the deep fiscal crisis facing the county," he said. "The statewide loss of billions of dollars in property taxes has left local government in an impossible position. No one wants to see layoffs, pay cuts or service reduction. One thing, however, is clear: A general strike would benefit no one."

But the slogans employed by the demonstrators spoke otherwise, with placards that read: "Not on Our Back: No Pay Cuts." "No Layoffs." "No Service Cuts."

The march and rally were generally peaceful and even took on a festive air with a mariachi band and a youth drill team to entertain demonstrators.

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