RIVERSIDE – Members of Service Employees International Union Local 721 walked off the job today in Riverside County to protest alleged unfair labor practices and air their grievances against county administrators following a breakdown in contract negotiations.
The work stoppage began this morning when custodians, cafeteria workers, engineers, health care and social services professionals joined for a roving series of demonstrations that by noon had reached the Riverside Convention Center, where an estimated 1,000 purple-shirted SEIU members assembled for a strategy session.
“This is about labor violations,” SEIU Local 721 spokesman Mike Long told City News Service. “We have tried to discuss egregious safety breaches with the county and have an ongoing conversation with them, but they have refused.”
County Executive Office spokesman Ray Smith told CNS there have been “minimal effects” stemming from the strike and indicated that the union’s estimate of the number of employees taking part may be inflated.
County attorneys obtained a court order Tuesday, night barring 1,043 employees in sensitive positions, including critical care nurses, from participating in the walkout. Riverside County Superior Court Judge John Vineyard signed the injunction after receiving requests from the county and the California Public Employee Relations Board.
“The county was attempting to ensure that employees specifically responsible for health and safety would not strike, potentially endangering hospital patients and others,” Smith said.
SEIU workers are slated to engage in a second daylong work stoppage today.
“We need to send a strong message to the Board of Supervisors that employees are not willing to put up with (unfair labor practices) anymore,” according to an SEIU Local 721 statement.
SEIU members brought the board’s Aug. 29 meeting to a halt, serving each supervisor with a notice of intent to strike and breaking into a chant of, “Strike! Strike! Strike!” and “Be safe! Be safe! Be safe county workers!” They were escorted out of the County Administrative Center by sheriff’s deputies.
The union — the county’s second-largest collective bargaining unit, numbering 7.500 employees — has been locked in contract talks with the county for the last 14 months. County administrators declared an impasse last week, arguing that negotiations were no longer productive.
Long said that pay and benefits are not the sticking point; instead, the county’s tactics and treatment of personnel are the “biggest issues.”
“We went to the board in March and explained the safety issues. The county turned around and conducted surveillance on workers who complained,”
Long said. “We’ve argued for increased transparency concerning operations at the (Riverside University) medical center. Emergency room wait times are going through the roof. We asked for information so we can address this problem in the best way. The county has refused to cooperate.”
According to Long, SEIU has also attempted to stress the exposure of mental health workers to dangers in county detention facilities, but county negotiators have declined to indulge union recommendations at the bargaining table.
“It is common for labor groups to criticize public agencies in order to apply pressure during negotiations,” Smith told CNS. “In Riverside County, labor groups know they can portray the status of negotiations however they choose, because the county respects the privacy of the process and will not comment about it.”
He said administrators have “bargained in good faith this year and value employees’ hard work.
According to the county spokesman, SEIU and Laborers International Union of North America employees’ salaries have increased an average 38 percent since 2012 – a figure that doesn’t include cost-of-living adjustments.
SEIU last resorted to work stoppages in early 2012, during a dispute over salaries and pension benefits.