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THE STATE

Potent Prison Guards Union Facing Challenges to Status Quo

A biting report on penal system, governor's call for concessions confront 'untouchable' labor group.

January 18, 2004|Dan Morain | Times Staff Writer

These days, Sen. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) is holding oversight hearings, along with Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles). On Tuesday, their committee will meet to review Hagar's report, which the judge could ultimately refer to federal prosecutors or use to order prison reforms. In an interview, Speier said a "third party" relayed to her that in the union's view, she had "crossed the line" with her investigations.

"I'm not naive," said Speier, who is contemplating running for statewide office in 2006. "I realize that this is taking on an interest that has had extra power in multiple administrations of both parties.... If the prison guards come after me, so be it."

Union Vice President Lance Corcoran called Speier's comments "absolutely ludicrous."

"Sen. Speier is doing what she thinks is right," Corcoran said. "We assume she will be open-minded. If she has already made up her mind, that is problematic."

Corcoran defended the union's right to donate to candidates who "are willing to listen to our issues." He listed measures the union advocates: stricter background checks for recruits, better training in academies and peace officer status.

In the two decades since it won the right to represent prison workers, the union also has set out to burnish the image of correctional officers. The union funds crime victims groups and sponsors an annual crime victims' day at the Capitol.

In any year, it is among the most striking of all Capitol park demonstrations. On that day, the union and victims' rights advocates arrange hundreds of white cardboard coffins on the lawn outside the west steps. Victims' families display poster-size photos of loved ones who have been murdered. Political leaders make a point of showing up.

Prison officers walk, according to the union's motto, "the toughest beat in the state." Stab-proof vests protect them from most mortal wounds. Far more police officers have been killed than correctional officers, 28 of whom have died in the line of duty.

How much sway does the union have with management in the Department of Corrections?

"They dictate basically every move any warden that I've been associated with makes," a high-ranking Department of Corrections official said, speaking on the condition that he not be identified. "There's not a policy at the local or headquarters level that isn't reviewed by CCPOA."

Their influence is "certainly good for the rank and file." But it hampers managers' ability to run prisons efficiently, the official said, citing one seemingly minor provision in the latest labor contract, negotiated in late 2001 by the Davis administration and ratified in 2002 by the state Legislature -- with only a single no vote. The contract stripped managers of one of the few tools they had to limit the use of sick leave. The labor pact permits officers to call in sick without a doctor's note confirming the illness. With the new policy in place, officers called in sick 500,000 more hours in 2002 than in 2001, a 27% increase.

The heavy use of sick leave by some officers forced prison managers to require officers to work additional overtime to cover all the posts. At least 110 prison officers used overtime pay to make more than $100,000 in 2002. One made more than $145,000 in 2002, records provided by the state controller's office last year show. Altogether, the state's correctional officers punched in $200 million worth of overtime in 2002 -- 25% more than in 2000.

The union's moves leading up to that contract show the influence it had with the Davis administration. The dance began in late 2001, before the 2002 gubernatorial election campaign was in full swing.

Novey, then the union's president, was meeting in the union's West Sacramento office with one of Davis' closest aides, Michael Yamaki. As it happened, Novey's next appointment was with former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan, then contemplating a run against Davis for governor.

Yamaki and Riordan, seeing one another, then chatted about golf, as Novey recalled it. But of course, the conversation had little to do with recreation. Rather, Novey left the impression that there was at least a possibility that the union might endorse Riordan in the 2002 campaign.

The following week, Davis summoned Novey to a meeting to discuss the union's contract.

Based on what Novey and others said, here's what happened: Novey was kept waiting, seemingly grew impatient, and left. Davis, learning that Novey had walked off, dispatched a member of his security detail, a California Highway Patrol officer, to bring Novey back to the governor's office. Like many in the prison union, Novey views the CHP as a rival.

"Can you imagine a highway patrolman stopping me?" said Novey, who kept walking.

Then one of Davis' aides tried to mollify Novey, offering him a gift of a dozen golf balls signed by Davis. Novey was unimpressed: "I got signed golf balls by Reagan. Give me a break."

It was all part of the strategy. As the contract talks opened, Novey was almost flippant, telling administration officials that any smart union leader knows to wait until an election year to negotiate labor contracts, officials said privately at the time.

Novey could not be reached for this article. But in past interviews, he said he had been striving for years to attain parity with the CHP, contending that correctional officers have a far more difficult job. In the current contract, prison guards will gain pay parity with the highway patrol.

"Highway patrol gets all this candy," Novey said, then added sarcastically: "Their job is more dangerous. They give traffic tickets."

In the early 1980s, when Novey took control of the union, the top pay for veteran guards was $21,000 a year. Within a decade, the top pay was $44,676. By 2006, when the current contract expires, the pay is expected to reach $73,248 a year.

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