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Workers Dig In, Push for Strike to Continue

Labor: Tension mounts as walkout against Ventura County looks to spill into next week.

July 20, 2001|MARGARET TALEV and TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Chanting "Scabs, go home!" to fellow workers who remained on the job, striking Ventura County government employees continued to disrupt public services Thursday and announced that their initial two-day walkout would continue into early next week.

Meanwhile, county officials braced for an extended strike that is already taking a toll on child protective services, public libraries, building permitting and agricultural inspections.

"It's still manageable at this point," said Barbara Journet, director of the Human Resources Department. "Now, if this gets to be a prolonged strike, it will be a different story. At two weeks, we could have to cut back on more services."

Union chief Barry Hammitt said workers would remain out on strike at least until Tuesday when the Board of Supervisors convenes its regularly scheduled meeting. He said the workers had demanded that the strike continue.

"These things build momentum," Hammitt said. "The employees got out there and realized, this is an awful lot of fun. And we're sending this message to our employer: 'Damn it, we're not going to take this anymore."'

County officials estimated that about half of the 4,200 members of the Service Employees International Union, Local 998, participated in the second day of the walkout Thursday. Managers tried to keep workers who had crossed picket lines out of view.

Angered by those who had returned to work, dozens of union members stormed inside the Ventura County Government Center on Thursday afternoon, chanting "Scabs, go home!"

At the same time, service disruptions continued throughout the county. Few construction permits were issued and building inspections were halted, officials said.

Child protective services handled only the most urgent cases, with 25 managers stretched to do the work of 250 social workers who had walked off the job. No child support checks were issued.

About half the county's 15 public libraries remained closed, as did 16 senior meal sites. Barbara Fitzgerald, director of the Human Services Agency, said she would have to deliver meals to 60 homebound clients herself.

Things could get worse today. Friday is usually a busy day for the county clerk's office, which is responsible for issuing marriage licenses and other documents.

Large shipments of citrus and flowers that usually go out on Monday and Tuesday from county farms could be delayed or canceled because of a lack of agricultural inspectors, nearly all of whom are on the picket line.

And with the support of the Teamsters, food and supplies may run short at the government center as the strike continues.

County officials have made no overtures about returning to the bargaining table since talks broke down earlier this week. County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston said he did not expect the Board of Supervisors to consider any new offers until it meets Tuesday.

But board Chairman Frank Schillo, at first steadfast against union pressure, expressed frustration Thursday at the stalled negotiations, blaming Johnston for moving too slowly to develop alternative proposals.

"It's just like a black hole over there," Schillo said of Johnston's office. "Why can't we meet tomorrow morning? If he had something organized, we could do that."

The union represents 4,200 of the county's 7,500 workers. The union had originally called for a two-day strike to be followed by other short walkouts.

Hammitt said he didn't want union members, who earn an average of $29,000 a year, to be forced into financial straits by a longer walkout. But by Thursday, he said, the workers were calling for an extended strike.

Before talks broke down on Tuesday, the county had agreed to give union members an average raise of 10% by 2004, bringing employee salaries up to par with their counterparts throughout the region. But the union also demanded a guarantee that the pensions of workers hired since 1979 be adjusted for a 3% annual cost of living increase.

County leaders wanted to conduct a months-long study to determine the financial effect. The plan could cost the county $108 million up front and $3 million to $4 million a year to maintain, draining retirement reserves and throwing the county's finances into a tailspin, according to county officials.

A cross-section of union supporters weighed in on Thursday. The Criminal Justice Attorney's Assn. of Ventura County, which includes prosecutors and public defenders, contributed $10,000 of its own dues to a hardship fund for strikers.

Hammitt said that all of the workers he has talked to shared the same sentiments. "People are saying, 'Don't you dare agree to bring us back in. We want to stay out here until we get this thing finished,' " he said. "It's a little investment now for a big return in the long haul.'

Staff writers Timothy Hughes and Matt Surman contributed to this report.

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