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No end in sight for Santa Clara County workers’ strike as it heads into its second week

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Thousands of Santa Clara County employees will continue their strike, only pausing their picketing and protest efforts from October 8-10 during the PG&E power shutoffs. County employees allege unfair labor practices and are demanding higher wages. Hundreds of them walk out each day from a rotating list of government offices including local hospitals and the Social Service Agency. 

The strike — the first the County has experienced in four decades — comes after an impasse in months-long negotiations between Santa Clara and the local branch of the Services Employee International Union (SEIU 512). The County has since filed an unfair practice grievance against the union, citing its detrimental impact on County residents and taxpayers. The County further argues that the union went on strike before it was obvious that no agreement could be reached and that they failed to give adequate notice of their intention to strike.

The union’s membership authorized the strike back in August, with 97% of union members voting in support. Grievances include chronic understaffing, stagnant pay and unfair work practices.

SEIU 521 members make up about 12,000 of the County’s 22,000 employees, and current picket lines are about 850 workers strong, spread between 20 locations. Picketers span professions from janitors, mental health professionals, nurses to librarians. Many feel the County is neglecting social workers and, by extension, the communities they serve. 

“Our members know that striking is a sacrifice — but as employees who have dedicated their lives to public service, they are ready to strike to protect children, seniors and low-income families,” Riko Mendez, an elected chief officer for the union, told reporters from NBC Bay Area.

Public services all over the County are expected to experience delayed service. Some offices, such as public health centers in Sunnyvale and Milpitas, have temporarily closed and canceled appointments, although County officials maintained that most facilities have remained open.

“We are continuing to ensure the community has access to essential County health and medical services,” County Executive Jeffrey Smith said in a Thursday press release. He emphasized that the County’s top priority was ensuring that no Santa Clara residents lost their access to healthcare services during the course of the strike. 

So far neither side has ceded in the contract negotiations, and SEIU 521 has not announced when strikers plan to return to work. Congressman Ro Khanna, a former economics lecturer at Stanford and a Democrat whose district includes much of Santa Clara County, expressed support for continued protests on Thursday.

“We can afford to do right by our kids,” he said on Thursday afternoon to workers striking outside the California Children’s Services Chandler Tripp Medical Therapy Unit in San Jose. “We can afford to do right by our seniors. We can afford to do right by those who are disabled. And we can afford to pay people a living wage so they can live here.”

While the strike continues, the County expects “minimal disruption of services.”

SEIU 521 denounced the grievance filed against them by the County in a statement released on Friday, citing the move as evidence of the County’s disrespect for its employees. 

“The fact that they would file a baseless charge against their own employees is another indication of their inability to deal with their employees’ legal strike action against the County’s unfair labor practices,” wrote union member Chris Libera. 

Union members have been working without a contract since June 16 when the previously negotiated terms expired. 

The County says it has continued to negotiate in good faith and has observed all conditions outlined in the previous contract during the negotiation period. 

The most recent labor relations agreement offers a total wage increase of 3% a year over the next five years for all SEIU 521 members. Additionally, it affords highly specialized healthcare positions, such as dialysis technicians and clinical dietitians, wage increases upwards of 7%. As it stands, the current contract would cost the County $625 million over its five-year period.

SEIU 521 has not specified exactly what percentage wage increase they’re hoping to secure. According to the Mercury News, the union’s demands also include greater commitment from the county government on issues of affordable housing and childcare for social workers — demands that county negotiators feel are extraneous to the terms of the labor contract.

So far the County has made no indication of ceding to the striker’s demands, claiming that they come at too high a cost for the overall fiscal health of the County. 

“The County is not a profit-making corporation. Our mission is to serve the most vulnerable members of our community,” Smith said in the same Oct. 3 statement. “We must be prudent in how we spend taxpayer dollars and invest in services.”

Correction: This article has been updated to reflect that protests have been paused from October 8-10 due to PG&E power shutoffs.

Contact Grace Carroll at gac23 ‘at’ stanford.edu