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Santa Clara County union suspends weeks-long strike, enters mediation

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Leaders of the Service Employees International Union Local 521 (SEIU 521) agreed on Oct. 31 to suspend their rolling strike and enter mediated negotiations for at least 30 days. The first bargaining session took place on Tuesday, marking the first time during this conflict that Santa Clara County officials and union leaders have entered voluntary mediation. The union, which represents 12,000 Santa Clara County employees, had previously alleged unfair labor practices and demanded higher wages. 

“We are committed to working toward reaching a successful resolution during this mediation,” said Union Chapter President Janet Diaz said in a press release. “If we can’t reach a fair settlement, we can and will exercise all our legal rights including our right to strike and to complete our vote on the County’s LBFO [last, best and final offer] and publicizing the vote results.”

The union’s membership had authorized the strike in August, with 97% of union members voting in support. Its grievances included chronic understaffing, stagnant pay and unfair work practices. The union began its strike at the start of October. 

The rolling strike, in which rotating groups of union workers boycotted work, marked SEIU 521’s first strike in 40 years. Both sides seemed unwilling to negotiate as the county sued SEIU 521 for unfair practices, alleging that it violated the law when the group began strikes before official impasse had been recognized. 

However, an unlikely suspension of striking in the wake of PG&E outages led both sides to a reopening of debate. After some negotiations, the county proposed its LBFO on Oct. 15, including annual raises of 3% over five years, with additional raises for workers such as account clerks and dialysis technicians. 

According to a press release from SEIU 521, the union responded by turning out “in record numbers starting on Oct. 22 to vote down the ‘LBFO.’” 

A final membership vote was scheduled from Oct. 22 to Nov. 5, but as part of the mediation agreement, the union has agreed to suspend the vote. In turn, the county has signaled by agreeing to continue negotiations that it is willing to improve upon the LBFO. 

The union first voted to authorize an unfair labor practice strike with a 97% vote in August. Dissatisfaction on the part of labor workers stems largely from what the union alleges were “illegal and unilateral changes in job requirements and working conditions” when the County restructured the Department of Family and Children’s Services. In particular, the union disagrees with the county’s decision to close the San Jose Family Resource Center and other decisions that the union claims will “negatively impact families and the workers who serve them.”

The strike included an act of civil disobedience on Sept. 19, when more than a dozen members were arrested for obstruction of traffic outside the San Jose Family Resource Center.

In response to the union’s strike, the county announced on Oct. 22 the postponement of the closure of the San Jose Family Resource Center. The county also placed the director of the Department of Family and Children’s Services, Francesca LeRue, on paid administrative leave. In the meantime, Assistant Director Daniel Little wrote in an email Oct. 24 to employees that while LeRue is on paid leave, he has “full authority to make decisions regarding operations.” 

This article has been corrected to reflect that the act of civil disobedience occurred on Sept. 19, not Oct. 19. This article has been corrected to reflect that the final membership vote was scheduled from Oct. 22 to Nov. 5.

Contact Jonathan Ko at jonathanko ‘at’ stanford.edu.