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Ventura County, Union to Resume Talks

Strike: Workers will meet today to decide whether to extend walkout during negotiations.

July 25, 2001|MARGARET TALEV | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Union officials agreed Tuesday to return to the bargaining table this week in hope of resolving an eight-day strike by Ventura County government workers.

Negotiators told the Board of Supervisors at a morning meeting packed with strikers that they wanted to immediately resume contract talks that broke down last week.

Supervisors said they want the same, for the sake of workers' finances, the county economy and residents who rely on public health care and social services. Still, neither side expected any immediate compromise, and the union wasn't immediately prepared to order members back to work.

At a rally outside the County Government Center punctuated by shouts and jeers, the Service Employees International Union Local 998 was split on whether to suspend its walkout while talks resumed or to maintain pressure on the county through a prolonged strike.

Reluctant to turn one heated camp of strikers against the other, top leaders of the union, which represents 4,200 of the county's 7,500 workers, told members to meet at the government center at 8 a.m. today to decide how to proceed.

The union agreed to resume negotiations after supervisors agreed to listen to a union plan to boost pensions without overextending county finances. The cost-of-living pension adjustments sought by the union would be applied retroactively to 1979, the year new employees stopped receiving such adjustments.

But County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston warned that no matter how solid the union's plan, the county still could not commit to such expense without months of detailed study. It was on that sticking point that the union walked away from talks last week. On Tuesday, the union urged the county to expedite any financial analyses.

"I guess it's a glimmer of hope," Johnston said of the union's willingness to renew talks. "But it's a two-edged sword. Their expectations still exceed the county's ability to do anything."

Union chief Barry Hammitt agreed it was too soon to be optimistic.

"It's easy, in the face of the enemy, to be very solicitous," he said of the five-member board. "But when the rubber hits the road, when the five of them get in a room together, will they follow through?"

Meanwhile, one labor expert dismissed the union's demand for retroactive pension enhancements going back more than two decades as a negotiating tactic, saying it would be political "suicide" for supervisors to agree to backfill so many years without knowing the long-run costs.

"It's a bargaining ploy," said Gilbert B. Siegel, professor emeritus of public administration at USC. "I don't think they have any reasonable expectation of getting 22 years of [coverage], particularly given the scope of the union. You're talking about an exponential effect that gets compounded over time."

Union officials and several younger union members, however, said it would be unfair to shut longtime employees and retirees out of the equation.

At the board meeting, Hammitt presented an overview of a plan that would allow the county to finance annual inflationary adjustments for the pensions of those workers.

He explained the plan like this: Enhancements could be delayed until 2004, financing could be spread out over 30 years, and, with employees sharing some of the burden, the enhancements would probably cost the county less than $2 million a year.

But lawyers for the county believe a state law that allows for such long-term financing may not be applicable in this case, Johnston said.

County officials have said they think it would cost about $108 million up front and $3 million to $4 million a year to meet the union's demands--a financial blow they say could have a domino effect on county finances.

Earlier this week, county leaders floated the idea of creating a limited pension boost by shifting a portion of a $20-million package of salary increases for union members that had been negotiated before talks broke down.

Union leaders rejected that suggestion outright, and on Tuesday the board heard from dozens of striking workers insulted by such a trade-off plan.

Supervisors hoped the renewed talks would ease such tensions.

"We're not agreeing to anything ahead of time," said board Chairman Frank Schillo. "But agreeing to get back to the table is the only way we'll make any progress."

Times staff writer Jenifer Ragland contributed to this story.

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