Sacramento County Workers on Strike: Largest Labor Action in Decades

Thousands of Sacramento County workers in a coalition of labor unions went on strike on September 5.  The union coalition includes the local chapter of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, Service Employees International Union Local 535, Stationary Engineers Local 39 AFL-CIO, and the United Public Employees Local 1.

Labor leaders and county management in separate press conferences disputed the number of striking employees at dozens of workplaces.  The number of workers on strike ranged from 4,000 (management) to 8,000 (union leaders), according to The Sacramento Bee of September 6.

By all accounts, the strike was the largest job action in Sacramento in decades.  Sacramento County employs over 14,000 people.

The main area of disagreement in proposed five-year contracts for striking county workers is over how they will bear the rising cost of medical care — increasing faster in the US than in any other developed country.  Unions that have walked out oppose county management’s proposal to make their members pay more for health care.

“It’s a stupid issue to strike over,” said Steve Lakich, who directs labor relations for the county, in The Bee on September 6.

“The price of health care is a critical issue for our members,” said Sandra Poole, executive director of UPE, in The Sacramento News & Review of July 13.  “The county is not proposing to save health-care costs, just to shift them to employees.”

UPE, which represents 4,500 county employees, has been in negotiations with county management since February 9.  UPE has two bargaining units of equal size: non-supervisory welfare workers make up one unit, and office-technical workers constitute the other unit.

The county’s proposed re-structuring of health-care coverage would mean a $2.50 hourly pay cut for him, said Michael Monasky, a UPE steward and father of four.  He joined hundreds of striking county workers who marched and rallied at the Sacramento County Administration Center on September 6.

Strikers shouted: “They say cutback, we say fight back.  We want a contract.”

Meanwhile inside the administration center, the five-member Sacramento County Board of Supervisors held budget hearings.  Security guards and sheriff’s deputies barred striking workers from bringing their picket signs into the hearings.

During the afternoon of September 6, SEIU and UPE leaders agreed to accept a state mediator’s offer to resume bargaining with county management, and to temporarily suspend the strike.  Later in the week, some UPE members returned to work, while others did not, refusing to cross picket lines of striking union members.

Stationary Engineers Local 39 did not accept the offer of State Mediation and Conciliation Service to re-start talks with county negotiators.  The day the strike began, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed state Sen. Sheila Kuehl‘s SB 840 to provide all Californians with high-quality, comprehensive health care.

“SB 840 relies on the failed old paradigm of using one source — this time the government — to solve the complex problem of providing medical care for our people,” the Republican governor said in a press statement.

Without a mention of the vetoed universal health-care bill, an unsigned Sacramento Bee editorial of September 7 urged county workers to get used to health-care costs, rising for “everyone.”  It is worth noting that Kuehl’s bill would have done away with a main force driving up the costs of medical care — private health insurance.

These same insurers are also a source of ad revenue for mass media and campaign cash for politicians.

The union representing Sacramento County’s registered nurses settled for a new agreement on August 30, while the Engineering Technicians and Technical Inspectors union approved a new agreement on September 6.  Both of these bargaining units accepted wage increases and the county’s new health-care coverage in separate five-year contracts.

In the meantime, county administrative and management employees cleaned toilets and emptied trash at Sacramento International Airport.  They filled in for striking county custodians at the medium-hub airport.

The Bee of September 8 reported that a driver in a vehicle hit a striking county worker, an unnamed male, while he was picketing.  In the same article, the paper’s reporters stated the name and breed of a lost dog whose owner, also named, found it at the county animal shelter.

County and the AFSCME local, SEIU Local 535 and UPE Local 1 negotiators met with the state mediator on Thursday and Friday.  Over a dozen unions remain in contract talks with the county.

Seth Sandronsky is a member of Sacramento Area Peace Action and a co-editor of Because People Matter, Sacramento’s progressive paper.  He can be reached at <>.

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