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Officials Seek to Expedite Talks in Strike

Labor: Ventura County supervisors schedule meeting to draft an improved pension plan.

July 21, 2001|MARGARET TALEV and TINA DIRMANN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Concerned that a workers strike is threatening public safety and the economy, Ventura County officials have called an emergency meeting to expedite a new round of talks with labor negotiators.

Board of Supervisors Chairman Frank Schillo said he has scheduled a 7:30 a.m. closed-door meeting Monday at the County Government Center. Schillo said he hopes the board can come up with a more attractive pension benefits plan to offer the 4,200-member union.

"We have to have a position as quickly as possible, a new position," Schillo said. "We owe it to these employees to get this resolved as quickly as we can, so I'm acting as quickly as I can."

Supervisor John Flynn said he had been lobbying Schillo to call a meeting since the strike began. "They really have made their point," Flynn said of the union. "They've made a good case for themselves."

Although the strike is scheduled to continue Monday, Barry Hammitt, executive director of the Service Employees International Union, Local 998, said he is pleased that the board is seeking a speedy end to the dispute.

"I think it shows some responsible leadership on the part of the Board of Supervisors. "I tend to think if I were in [Schillo's] shoes, I'd be asking questions like, "What options do we have to make this a party, rather than a lynching?"

As the strike moved into its third day Friday, Schillo and other officials became increasingly concerned about the impact on services, the local economy and public safety.

Fruit fly traps continue to go unchecked in a county with a $1-billion agricultural industry. Large shipments of citrus to Asia and trees to Northern California are stalled because of a lack of inspectors. Air and water pollution samplings have been halted.

Most workers who administer child support payments and check on abused children remain at home. And while Ventura County Medical Center remains open, some services aren't available and at least one patient had to be sent elsewhere for treatment.

Problems are expected to worsen next week if the strike continues.

On the picket lines Friday, workers such as office assistant Susanne Perez said they were determined to stick to their demands. As a single mother, Perez said, she has so much trouble making ends meet that she sometimes feeds her two children at a food pantry.

County departments that typically see long lines on Fridays, such as the marriage license division of the clerk's office, were largely deserted. Many residents steered clear of the government center because they were sympathetic to workers, intimidated by picketers or simply decided to wait until the dispute was over.

But others had business that couldn't wait. And not all were sympathetic to the workers' cause.

Process server Andrew Shuey, 23, expressed his frustration with the strikers workers as he entered the County Government Center.

"They're blocking traffic, they're hurting other people," he said. "They want increases in their retirement? These people are so spoiled."

County Treasurer and Tax Collector Hal Pittman said he believed enthusiasm for the strike was waning among union members themselves. "This afternoon, for the first time, I got a number of calls from employees asking, 'Can we come in? Can we work?' " Pittman said.

"I say, 'It's not our decision. If you're a union member there are [union] sanctions."'

The union's contract expired last month. Employees walked off the job Wednesday after talks with the county over improved retirement benefits broke down.

The union wants a guaranteed annual 3% cost-of-living adjustment to pensions for workers hired since 1979.

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Times staff writers Timothy Hughes and Robin Shulman contributed to this story.

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