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Union Says Deputies Will Strike if Benefits Are Cut : Labor: Edelman calls it a moot point since county has put in abeyance a plan to end its contributions Nov. 1.


The president of the union representing 6,500 Los Angeles County sheriff's deputies and district attorney's investigators said Wednesday that his members appear determined to go on strike if the county tries to cut off all government contributions for their medical and dental care, life insurance and retirement.

Shaun Mathers, head of the Assn. of Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, said that such a cut in benefits--proposed for the deputies and investigators in lieu of an 8.25% salary cut threatened for other county workers--would actually be an even bigger hit than the salary cut, costing the affected law enforcement agents perhaps one-sixth of their take-home pay.

But even as Mathers confirmed that there have been a series of recent station house meetings of deputies to consider a work stoppage or other job actions, the chairman of the County Board of Supervisors, Ed Edelman, said the county has decided to put in abeyance its threat of a benefits cut on Nov. 1 and also is bargaining about the salary cuts.

The strike threat came as officials of a union representing the largest group of county employees resumed negotiations with the county. Tuesday night, members of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike Oct. 1 if agreement is not reached.

Local 660 general manager Gilbert Cedillo said after the meeting that the union received what it considers to be the "first serious package of proposals" during negotiations but declined to characterize their nature.

The county is demanding that those workers take the 8.25% pay cut to help balance a $13.5-billion budget. Negotiations have assumed critical importance because savings from the proposed pay cut, about $215 million, have already been included in the budget, despite Edelman's remarks Wednesday that alternatives are still being sought.

Edelman said the county budget situation remains critical, with the poor economy leading to less tax revenue and less money to pay workers, in either salary or benefits.

"Obviously, we need money to keep the county afloat," Edelman said. "But we've put that letter we had been intending to send the deputies (notifying them of a termination of benefits) aside, and the parties are back bargaining. So any talk of a strike at this stage is sort of a moot point."

The sheriff's deputies and district attorney's investigators have a contract valid through 1995 that bans any salary cuts without their permission. In opening the possibility of cutting benefits instead, the county was trying to get around that contract provision.

Mathers on Wednesday called any move to cut deputies' benefits "unconscionable." He said it could cost law enforcement workers who average a little over $30,000 in take-home pay after taxes, as much as $5,000 a year, if they wished to personally pay to replace the health, dental and life insurance they stood to lose.

"Law enforcement and the Sheriff's Department in particular has suffered an awful lot in the past couple of years and I think this is potentially the straw that breaks the camel's back," Mathers said in reference to the deputies' willingness to put up with their lot.

Meanwhile, Art Reddy, president of the Professional Peace Officers Assn., which represents the Sheriff Department's several hundred sergeants and lieutenants, said his people are not threatening to go out on strike.

Reddy, however, described his members as "extremely upset" by the prospect of benefits termination.

"It's not that we don't believe there's a real budget crunch," Reddy said. "But we feel it's unfair to ask 80,000 county employees to chip in to keep the county running."

The resumption of talks Wednesday between the county and Local 660, with a mediator present, ended a four-week lull in talks.

Local 660 is the largest of the county's employees unions, representing about 40,000 of the county's 80,000-member work force, including clerical staff, nurses, librarians and paramedics among others.

The union's contract with the county expires Sept. 30, and Local 660 leaders have said their members will strike if no agreement is reached by then.

The county broke off negotiations in early August, maintaining that no progress was being made. On the day of the impasse declaration, union leaders say they presented the county with a proposal to have workers give up overtime pay for one year, a move they maintain would save the county $90 million.

County officials say the savings would be far less than that and have said the plan does not go far enough. However, the overtime proposal and other issues are expected to take up the bulk of negotiations, which could last several more weeks.

The county is also conducting negotiations with a dozen other unions that represent about 30,000 county employees, including sheriff's deputies and firefighters, over the proposed benefits cuts in place of the salary cuts.

The county's director of labor relations, Elliot Marcus, has said that if deputy sheriffs or firefighters called a strike that posed a danger to public safety, the county would seek a court order requiring them to go back to work.

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