It is a showdown that has been unfolding for months, to determine if thousands of Los Angeles County workers will absorb unprecedented wage and benefits losses.
Faced with its worst fiscal crisis in history, the county is demanding that nearly half its 80,000-member work force take an 8.25% wage reduction. The county proposes eliminating its contribution to the medical and dental plans of the other half, leaving workers to pay the entire cost of health insurance.
Officials have maintained that the cuts are necessary to meet the county's $13.5-billion budget. Savings from the cuts--$215 million--have been calculated into the budget. Other cost-cutting measures include laying off about 1,500 employees, closing health clinics and libraries, and reducing grants to general relief welfare recipients.
But those prospects seem to have spawned a new militancy among union members, reflected in a rousing march attended by 7,500 demonstrators last week and a stated willingness to utilize the ultimate bargaining tool: the strike.
On Tuesday, members of Local 660 of the Service Employees International Union, which represents about 40,000 county workers, voted overwhelmingly to authorize a strike if agreement on salary concessions is not reached before contracts expire Sept. 30.
A day later, the president of a union representing 6,500 sheriff's and district attorney's investigators said his members are ready to walk if the county goes ahead with a proposal to cut its contributions to health and dental coverage.
By the end of the week, the union representing about 2,500 county social workers had drawn up strike preparation plans with the intent of polling its members by the end of the month.
To add more spice to the recipe, both sides are closely watching to see how a strike by about 9,000 workers in the city's Department of Water and Power plays out: Will it further embolden county workers and put pressure on the Board of Supervisors or could it turn public sympathy against labor?
Whatever the outcome, labor leaders perceive a new energy and militancy among members.
"We definitely want to take our place within labor," said Local 660 general manager Gil Cedillo, 39, who led the union through a series of successful work stoppages during a labor dispute two years ago.
"There is a lot of new, young leadership in such areas as the United Farm Workers and the Justice for Janitors campaign," Cedillo said. "It's a very difficult time, but, in some respects, it's also a very exciting time."
The unions' show of solidarity may be paying off. The county has backed away from a threat to automatically impose wage and benefits cuts, and last week resumed negotiations with all employee unions.
Cedillo said it has helped that Local 660 has been able to coordinate its efforts with a coalition representing 13 other county employee unions whose members face steep benefits reductions.
The coalition includes the Assn. for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs, the Los Angeles County Building and Construction Trades Council and unions representing lifeguards, firefighters, engineers and probation officers.
When the county prepared to send out notices to employees informing them of its intent to eliminate contributions to health and dental plans--after negotiations with the unions had broken off--the coalition threatened to sue.
The county agreed to withdraw the notices and went back to the bargaining table.
Phil Ansell, an organizer with Local 535 of the Service Employees International Union, agreed that the county is in worse fiscal shape than ever. But his members--social workers who work mostly at the Department of Children's Services--also seem more willing to risk a strike than ever before, he said, describing them as "militant and organized."
Jim Wood, secretary-treasurer of the local chapter of the American Federation of Labor, an interested observer of the county labor negotiations, said recessionary forces pinching nearly every aspect of California's economy have placed unprecedented pressures on public employees.
"Cross reference (the county situation) with what's going on at the DWP," he said. "If you talk to people at the union halls, one of the themes that comes out is that this could have all been settled without a strike, but no one would take them seriously. It is a feeling on the part of many in public employment and especially the service sector (and of) people working at the county hospital whose workload has increased and whose patience has decreased."
Or at the county's Department of Public Social Services. Flora Sellers, an eligibility worker, has been with the county for 26 years and earns slightly more than $26,000 annually.
She was one of about 2,500 members of Local 660 who voted to authorize a strike to protest the proposed 8.25% salary reduction.