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Simi Strike Is Put on Hold Pending Vote

Labor: The City Council this morning is expected to consider the proposed pay and benefits agreement for 300 employees after a compromise is reached.

July 25, 2002|JENIFER RAGLAND and HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

An 11th-hour compromise between Simi Valley officials and union workers has temporarily averted a strike that was set to begin this morning. City Council members are scheduled to meet behind closed doors at 10 a.m. today to vote on a proposed contract offer, which would give workers a 19.6% increase in salary and benefits over four years.

"If the city approves it, the strike is off, and if they don't approve it, we'll go on strike at noon," Edgar McLemore, president of the union's bargaining unit, said Wednesday evening, adding that he was optimistic but was taking a wait-and-see approach. "The Grim Reaper's still out there."

"We think it's a good package and it helps the union reach their goals," Assistant City Manager Laura Magelnicki said.

Service Employees International Union Local 988 covers about 300 police dispatchers, clerks, bus drivers, custodians, mechanics and secretaries in Simi Valley.

The tentative agreement, reached after about four hours of last-ditch talks Wednesday, followed a breakdown in negotiations late Tuesday.

At issue was a clause to require the union to essentially waive review of an unfinished salary and compensation study the city commissioned in April.

The waiver would have been in exchange for city leaders agreeing to increase their offer from 16% in salary and benefits to 19.6%, City Manager Mike Sedell said. Union negotiators had been asking all along for a pay and benefits package totaling 21.6% through 2006.

But union leaders refused to sign away the right to see the study, which will compare in detail the wages and benefits of Simi Valley municipal employees with those in other cities. Union officials believe that report will show how far behind the workers are among their peers.

While the study would not mean automatic pay increases, the results could put political pressure on the city for future raises. "We're not willing to give that up," McLemore said.

Sedell said the study issue was more of a misunderstanding than anything else, which is why he agreed to recommend to the City Council today that the 19.6% offer stand without the waiver clause.

"We're there conceptually, we're there economically, now we just have to figure out a way to get there politically," Sedell said.

McLemore said if the council approves the contract, mail-in ballots will be sent to all union members Friday. The contract is subject to approval by a majority of the union's 170 dues-paying members who vote on the pact.

The deal includes a pay hike of about 3% each year with the remainder of the money earmarked for benefits. The offer also allows for creation of a medical benefits program for union retirees.

The contract equates to about $7 million in extra payroll costs over the four years, McLemore said.

The average union member earns about $16 an hour. Under the proposed increase, an average worker would earn about $16.50.

Union members have been working without a contract since June 30, when the last four-year pact expired.

The bargaining unit's desire for full coverage of workers' medical benefits had been the main sticking point in the talks.

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

The city is now offering to contribute about $550 a month.

Some union members say they have to pay $300 monthly for HMO insurance, and many worry that as premiums rise they won't be able to afford insurance.

The disparity has accrued over time as workers' contracts failed to keep pace with rising medical insurance premiums.

The city's management employees, who are not represented by a union, receive pay increases that are negotiated annually.

If the contract is rejected and workers strike, city leaders said they are prepared to ensure that essential city services continue.

Sedell said the public would most likely be affected by a loss of bus service.

He said that despite union accusations, he has not told employees whether they should strike.

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