Two unions — Laborers’ International Union of North America, Local 777, and Service Employees International Union, Local 721 — represent about two-thirds of Riverside County’s 22,000 employees. Their agreements with the county expired in 2016. Negotiations between the county and the two unions have not resulted in mutually acceptable agreements.
Last week, the Board of Supervisors took dramatic, but different, actions to attempt to resolve this labor conflict. In a 3-2 vote, the board imposed its last and best offer on SEIU members. But later in the meeting after a public hearing, the same board voted unanimously to defer action with LIUNA and resume negotiations in early 2019.
While the supervisors were clearly frustrated taking these actions, their principal criterion was the future costs, which would affect the county budget and, ultimately, county residents.
While annual salary increases are less significant in the long-term, the county is facing a projected $300 million increase in pension costs over the next several years. Finding an option that would mitigate these costs was the county’s principal goal; and the parties have not found the path to cooperation.
In August 2017, the county declared an impasse in the negotiations. A fact-finding committee was established to review the negotiations with SEIU and a public hearing on the report was held in May.
During the period, SEIU has filed litigation against the county over the negotiation tactics. In November, the board directed its negotiators to ask SEIU to reconsider the suit. If it would withdraw it, the board would be inclined to continue to negotiate.
“We have met with SEIU and asked if it would wipe the slate clean of litigation,” reported Brenda Diedericks, assistant county executive officer for human resources. “I would characterize the discussion as informal and they are unlikely to withdraw the litigation. They want to hold the litigation as leverage for negotiating.”
The terms of two supervisors made this vote even more difficult. Both Supervisor John Tavaglione (2nd District) and Marion Ashley (5th District) were attending their last board meeting. Their terms end this month and neither ran for re-election. Their successors assume their board seats in January.
They and Chair Chuck Washington (3rd District) voted to impose the last and best offer. Washington was clearly torn on his vote. He asked Supervisor Kevin Jeffries (1st District) what alternative he saw.
But ultimately, Washington said, “The longer I’ve been here and the better I understand our budget and budget problems, we’re operating with a structural deficit and spending down reserves.
“It may be political suicide, but I have to do what is best for the 2.4 million residents of the county and look out for the budget. We’re on a path that is unsustainable and will result in layoffs,” Washington lamented.
In a press release after the meeting, Washington added, “Riverside County’s financial situation is bleak: it maintains a structural deficit and declining reserves, … SEIU’s demands were, unfortunately, impossible to fulfill. Members of SEIU have seen an average 49 percent increase in compensation over the past five years. On average, the compensation of SEIU members is 18 percent above market at top step when compared to the five surrounding counties. These kinds of increases are simply unsustainable.”
Jeffries was hopeful SEIU would accept the county’s offer to resume negotiating if the litigation were dropped. “But they seem hell bent to continue to fight it out,” he said. “Imposing will create more havoc and heartburn for everybody.” He also expressed concern that failing to resolve the pension cost issue would ultimately result in union member layoffs.
Finally, Tavaglione expressed his frustration, “I’m embarrassed with this discussion. Let’s make a decision,” and the vote followed.
Before the vote, SEIU President Bob Schoonover told the board, “You’re taking a massive gamble at the expense of Riverside County taxpayers.” He also claimed the county had been negotiating in bad faith.
LIUNA has not filed any litigation and beseeched the board to resume negotiations in January. After an hour of speakers in favor of LIUNA, the board agreed, including Tavaglione and Ashley.
“I can’t in good faith move forward with imposition. There is more work to be done,” Washington stated.
Ashley concurred, “I am confident a deal could be made with LIUNA.”
Imposing the last and best offer on the SEIU will save the county about $1.3 million annually. If imposition had been applied to LIUNA, the estimated savings would have been $3.4 million annually.