Ventura County government's largest labor union approved a tentative contract Friday, potentially ending its most acrimonious salary battle in a decade.
Under the agreement, 4,200 general government workers would receive raises averaging 13% over four years. If the contract is quickly ratified, employees will see the pay increase beginning in their Oct. 18 checks, union leaders said.
Starting in July 2002, employees would also earn a 2% annual cost-of-living increase in the amount going to their pensions. But they would have to finance the cost of that benefit, beginning in July 2004, through a payroll deduction averaging 2.63%.
The union's bargaining team was unable to persuade county administrators to make the retirement adjustment retroactive to 1979, when the cost-of-living benefit was removed. That means employees hired since then would not get cost-of-living credit for any years worked before July 2002, when their enhanced retirement benefits will be calculated.
The decades of back payments were a sticking point that prompted frustrated workers to strike for six days in July. Despite that, the librarians, social workers, accountants and clerks who make up Service Employees International Union Local 998 will be asked to approve what union chief Barry Hammitt termed a "pretty excellent" agreement.
Some of the union's lowest-paid employees would see their wages rise 40% during the length of the contract, Hammitt said. And the union won a concession from county officials to continue talking about making the inflationary adjustments retroactive, he said.
Hammitt said the union will push hard on that issue, particularly as it relates to differing interpretations of how a $359-million surplus in the employees' retirement fund should be spent.
The union has said the money should be used to improve employee benefits. But the county's negotiating team, led by County Executive Officer Johnny Johnston, has taken a more conservative approach, arguing that the county cannot rely on that money because of wildly fluctuating securities markets.
"We have to be stingy for a few years and see how things go," he said. "And then we can take another look."
As it is, raises in the four-year contract would cost an estimated $30 million, Johnston said. He called the tentative pact a "fair compromise of our differences."
"It's something we will manage to afford. It will not be easy," he said. "But it's good for the workers, for government and for taxpayers."
Union leaders will present the tentative contract to members at a meeting Thursday. Members will vote the following week, with ballots being counted Oct. 10, said union President Keith Filegar.
"This contract is a long way from where it started," he said. "I think it will be ratified."