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Simi Valley Workers Reject Latest Contract

Labor: Union moves closer to a strike after voting down an offer for a four-year package.

July 23, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Members of Simi Valley's largest public employees union voted Monday to reject a last-minute offer from the city on a new contract, meaning as many as 300 city workers could walk off the job later this week.

A majority of the union's 170 dues-paying members gathered at the Simi Valley Police Station to vote on a previous city offer, but the new proposal--offering more in salary and benefits--arrived minutes before the meeting, union officials said.

Still, 95% of those at the meeting rejected the new offer, said Edgar McLemore, president of the bargaining unit, meaning the strike is scheduled to begin Thursday morning.

Service Employees International Union Local 998 covers police dispatchers, bus drivers, mechanics and secretaries in Simi Valley. They are seeking a 3% pay hike and improved health benefits in their contract, which expired June 30.

"For whatever reason, our city manager had decided we're not deserving of equal benefits," McLemore said.

Assistant City Manager Laura Magelnicki said officials have prepared a plan to ensure that critical city services--such as transit, police dispatching and sewage treatment--are not interrupted during a strike.

Last week, the union team rejected an offer by city negotiators that would have provided a 4% annual increase in pay and health benefits for each of the next four years.

Monday's proposal was for a 19% increase over four years.

Magelnicki said she was disappointed the latest offer was rejected.

"From the city's perspective it was a very generous proposal," she said. "In these economic times, you're just not seeing offers of that magnitude."

McLemore, however, said a 19% package may look good on paper, but it is not enough for employees to cover their benefits costs.

"If you're so far behind all of these years, 19% can hardly keep up with what's going on," he said. "We're talking about benefits equal with other people in this city."

Union members are asking for a 21.6% package, including major changes in the medical plan, said Zelma Baer, a union negotiator who works in the city's accounting department.

Union leaders argue that the city's contributions to their health benefits--currently about $310 a month--are less than half the $810 a month that management employees receive.

Baer said she pays $300 every month for HMO insurance, and premiums are slated to go up 20% each year for the next three years.

"We have to do something now, or we're going to be buried," Baer said. "People won't be able to afford insurance, and they'll have to go without, hoping their children won't get sick or hurt. That's no way to live."

The average union member earns about $16 an hour.

Earlier Monday, a memo City Manager Mike Sedell sent to SEIU employees raised the ire of some union leaders because it informed workers in underlined print that they may resign from the union at any time.

"It's union-busting," McLemore said.

Magelnicki said the memo was only for information purposes and stemmed from calls Sedell has received from concerned workers, she said.

"It tells employees they have a choice about whether to participate in the strike," she said, "and tells them that the city won't be paying them if they choose to strike."

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