Natalie Guerra, left, and Veronica Luna, with bullhorn, take part in protest… (Mel Melcon, Los Angeles…)
Los Angeles County social workers will return to work and resume contract negotiations Wednesday after a six-day strike, union officials announced Tuesday evening.
The child welfare workers went on strike — the first by county workers in more than a decade — after months of contentious negotiations. All of the 55,000 workers represented by Service Employees International Union Local 721, including the social workers, have been without a contract for the last two months.
SEIU Local 721 President Bob Schoonover credited a rally staged by social workers and supporters Tuesday outside the county Hall of Administration with bringing county officials back to the table.
"When they saw the incredible solidarity of our members on the street, the Supervisors knew they had to act," he said in a statement.
County spokesman David Sommers said a mediator brought in by management had been working since Monday to bring the union back to the table.
"We're very pleased that SEIU is coming back ... and we're hopeful this action will result in a settlement," he said.
The county and SEIU have reached an agreement on raises, the county's contribution to health premiums and the majority of other contract issues. Social worker caseloads are the main remaining sticking point, as the union wants the county to commit to hiring 35 more social workers a month for the next 17 months.
County officials said they were committed to bringing caseloads down, both through new hires and technological improvements to make work more efficient. But they have balked at agreeing to a specific hiring number. County Chief Executive Officer William T Fujioka said he wanted to form a joint labor- management committee to review the caseload issue.
By the union's estimate, 2,000 social workers and supporters rallied outside of the Hall of Administration during the Board of Supervisors' weekly meeting Tuesday. A small contingent of protesters went in to speak to the board.
"Your employees have sacrificed hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars of their own families' incomes in order to stand up for the most vulnerable children in Los Angeles County," SEIU Local 721 regional director Michael Green told the supervisors.
After the meeting, protesters marched in the street around the downtown building, with a Los Angeles Police Department escort. As the march reached Temple and Hill streets, several protesters sat down in the middle of the intersection and remained seated after LAPD officers ordered them to move to the sidewalk.
Four women and three men were arrested on charges of failing to disperse, an LAPD spokesman said. SEIU spokesman Lowell Goodman said three of them were children's social workers and the others were SEIU employees.
The Department of Children and Family Services brought in managers to fill in during the strike, with as many as two-thirds of social workers and their supervisors off the job. The remaining workers focused on "critical services" like manning the child abuse hotline and immediate response investigations, while law enforcement agencies helped check on some children, department spokesman Armand Montiel said. But he said all of the department's services had been affected by the strike.
Several hundred workers in the county's Department of Public Social Services, which administers various public assistance programs for low-income, disabled and elderly county residents, also joined in the strike Monday and Tuesday, but officials said there were no effects on services there.