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Simi Valley Union Threatens a Walkout

July 18, 2002|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 100 members of Simi Valley's largest public employees union are threatening to walk off the job next week after last-ditch settlement talks Wednesday failed to produce a new contract agreement.

The strike threat followed an offer branded as substandard by union officials. The walkout, which union officials said would begin July 25, would include police dispatchers, bus drivers, custodians, mechanics and dozens of clerks and secretaries.

"Their offer is a small reprieve for a couple of years," said Nancy Fisher, a city customer service representative and member of the bargaining team for Service Employees International Union's Local 998. "In the long run, it takes us nowhere."

The union's most recent contract expired June 30. Members will take a final vote on the most recent offer Monday.

During a three-hour meeting at City Hall on Wednesday, a dozen negotiators for both sides debated the union's request for a four-year contract that includes a pay hike and improved health benefits.

In the end, city negotiators offered a 4% annual increase in pay and health benefits for the next four years, for a total of 16%. Union members want closer to 21% total, including major changes to the current medical plan.

"Right now, there are no medical benefits for our retirees, and employees are paying nearly $300 out of pocket each month for an HMO," said Zelma Baer, a union negotiator who works in the city's accounting department.

Union leaders say city management and municipal employees working in neighboring cities receive medical packages that offer 100% coverage for an employee and a second person.

City leaders say their offer, which equates to nearly $6 million, provides ample funds for union members to pay for insurance. Union leaders say the city's offer does not take into account continually increasing premiums.

"Their offer is just not enough money to cover our insurance," Baer said. "We're looking for 100% coverage."

As for salaries, members of the local are seeking a 3% pay increase, union leaders said. The average union member earns about $16 an hour.

"There is a fairly sizable offer on the table right now," Mayor Pro Tem Glen Becerra said. "It's a fair offer considering the current economic times."

But union bargaining President Edgar McLemore, sounding tired but resolved after Wednesday's meeting, said city officials in earlier meetings had offered closer to a 19% increase over four years, but then backpedaled.

"We're not getting anywhere any other way," McLemore said. "The strike will occur."

Simi Valley's Local 998 represents about 300 clerical and technical workers, nearly half the city's work force. Dues-paying members, a majority of whom voted to authorize a strike last month, number about 160.

Although union negotiators tentatively rejected the city's final offer Wednesday, they will present the deal to members during a meeting Monday night.

Union members can vote either by mail or at the meeting to accept or reject the offer. Union leaders said there was little doubt the offer would be rejected and the strike would occur.

"If employees choose to [strike], we have contingency plans in place to ensure there isn't any impact on the essential services," Assistant City Manager Laura Magelnicki said.

She declined to discuss details of the plan, but said police dispatching, sanitation services and buses would continue operating. Such things as building permits, tree-trimming projects and water bill payments could take additional days to process, she said.

"We're concerned about there being a strike," Magelnicki said. "A strike doesn't do anybody any good."

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