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Ventura County Studies Pension Deal

Labor: Plan would lower raises to boost retirement benefits, in bid to end government workers' strike. Union chief calls the idea unacceptable.

July 24, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ventura County officials said Monday they hoped to persuade thousands of county government workers to end a weeklong strike by offering them some form of inflation protection for future pension checks.

But to pay cost-of-living adjustments for retirees, the county probably would cut into $20 million in salary and benefit increases it had earlier offered union members, said County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston.

"Instead of getting this much in salary and nothing in pensions, it'll be a little of both," Johnston said. "There's no new money."

Union chief Barry Hammitt called the overture "totally unacceptable."

"They're just asking us to move money from our left pocket to our right pocket, and aren't doing anything more," he said.

Given that reaction, county supervisors are not optimistic about a new round of talks with the Service Employees International Union Local 998, which represents 4,200 of the county's 7,500 employees. Supervisors also expect a large and vocal union presence at this morning's board meeting.

"I think this might be a long strike," said board Chairman Frank Schillo. "I don't have much hope right now."

Picket lines appeared thinner Monday than last week, but few of the absent strikers were back at work. About half of the union's membership remained off the job, county officials said.

Strikers were expected to return to work this afternoon, if only for a few days, to replenish their paychecks. "I have to go back," said Summer Herron, a 24-year-old probation clerk who earns about $17,000 a year. "I have to pay for day care for two kids."

But Hammitt said the standoff is by no means over. "If the employer doesn't feel the pain, he's got no incentive to come to the table and resolve it," he said.

Meanwhile, several county departments, handling matters ranging from agricultural inspections to social services, have become severely backlogged, managers said.

A Superior Court judge on Monday postponed a decision on whether to force 194 strikers back to work. On Wednesday, county lawyers will try to convince the same judge to extend orders keeping 247 would-be strikers, who hold jobs considered essential, on the clock.

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Times staff writer Tina Dirmann contributed to this story.

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