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Union Contract Seems Closer in Ventura County

Negotiations: It's first session since early May. Labor chief says government considering putting pay on par with other areas.

July 06, 2001|CATHERINE SAILLANT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

With both sides hoping to avoid a strike, Ventura County government's largest employee union appeared to be closing in on a new labor contract Thursday after a day of intense negotiations with county leaders.

"I think it's doable. But the county needs to restore some credibility that has been lost over the years," union chief Barry Hammitt said during a break.

Hammitt said negotiators are no longer flinching over the union's demand that typists, social workers, accountants, custodians and others represented by Service Employees International Union Local 998 receive wages comparable to those paid to similar workers in neighboring counties.

Some Ventura County workers are paid up to 27% less than their counterparts in Southern California, according to a union study.

To bring them up to par, the county must agree to an average 10% pay hike, union officials say.

After initially offering a 3.5% increase, the county is now considering bringing salaries fully up to par, Hammitt said.

But how long it will take to get there is still being worked out.

"There is a framework there that will allow us to get to or exceed what we are seeking," he said. "But it's a question of faith."

Past county administrators made promises that were not fulfilled, Hammitt said. This time, employees will seek assurances in writing, the union leader said.

County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston has said he is not opposed to bringing up wages for underpaid employees.

But he has resisted formulas that would automatically raise pay whenever salaries for a comparative employee group goes up.

Johnston, who did not sit in on Thursday's session, said such an agreement would be financially risky for the county.

"This idea of locking in [pay raises] is just a bad deal," Johnston said. "There is no way to forecast what those costs might be down the road."

Still, Johnston said he is encouraged that negotiations are continuing.

"They've been at it all day, so it looks like they are working on something that's of interest to both sides," he said.

Thursday's session marked the first time the two sides have met since early May.

Talks broke down after the county refused to offer more than a 3.5% raise, Hammitt said.

But after union members took a strike vote and threatened to walk out on June 28, the Board of Supervisors instructed Johnston to seek a resumption in negotiations.

A state mediator presided over Thursday's negotiations in Ventura.

To mark the occasion, SEIU members decorated the lobby with purple and gold balloons emblazoned with the union logo.

Hammitt said the two sides were still at odds over expanded retirement benefits.

The union is asking that members receive cost-of-living adjustments on retirement checks.

About 85% of union members do not currently qualify for the inflationary hikes.

Talks are complicated by the fact that another employee group, representing 750 sheriff's deputies, is also pushing for a new contract.

The Ventura County Deputy Sheriffs' Assn. is seeking guaranteed pay increases and an expanded retirement plan.

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