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Wage War: Four California State Employee Unions Are Demanding Pay Increases

Edward Henderson | California Black Media

Four California government employee unions are demanding salary increases from the California Department of Human resources (CalHR) and the State Legislature to keep up with the high cost of living in California. When compared to their peers in the private sector, the employees say, there is a significant disparity in salaries.

Representatives of the unions say they are frustrated with stalled negotiations with the state over disparities in pay. Last week, one of the Unions, the American Physicians and Dentists, authorized a strike.

The other three unions are the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1000 – California’s largest labor union; the California Correctional Peace Officers; and the California Association of Professional Scientists.

In June, the SEIU employees initially demanded a 30% wage increase in their next three-year contract. The legislature countered with an offer of a 2% annual increase over three years. That offer – which union members view as a move to low-ball them — sparked a demonstration at the State Capitol in June that has been followed by an ongoing stalemate between the parties.

“It’s moving slowly,” said Local 1000’s Vice President of Bargaining Irene Greene. “We’re severely disappointed in the state’s movement to get this contract negotiated with bargaining team members.”

According to the bargaining update, the state also rejected the union’s request for paid time off to observe Juneteenth.

Local 1000 represents approximately 100,000 workers in jobs as diverse as prison librarians, janitorial staff and educators at California’s schools for the deaf and blind.

In response to the state’s 2% initial offer, the Union lowered its wage request to a 26% raise.

Greene believes the union’s 26% compromise is reasonable, considering the high cost of living in California.

“We have a large number of members that are unable to maintain a living wage in the state of California. They love the positions that they work in, however we’ve been delayed in our salary increase for a number of years,” she said. “The reason we felt that the 30% and 26% were justified is because of the low income we are finding ourselves getting.”

Greene said union jobs once ensured a comfortable standard of living, but this is no longer the case.

“We used to be able to have these jobs as middle class jobs, purchase a home, be able to provide for our families and retire with dignity,” she added. “At this point, those who we represent are really struggling.”

California Black Media contacted CalHR for comment, but Camille Travis, deputy director of communications for the state’s human resource agency, said the department does not comment on or share proposals for ongoing negotiations.

For nearly three years now, the California Association of Professional Scientists have been in negotiations with the state, demanding up to 43% increases in pay.

Assemblymember Tina McKinnor (D-Inglewood) introduced a bill Assembly Bill (AB) 1677 that would commission the UC Berkeley Labor Center to assess the salary structure of scientists employed by the state. The Assembly Appropriations Committee is currently reviewing the bill.

Another study commissioned by Local 1000 and conducted by the UC Berkeley Labor Center released in March found that many Local 1000 members, particularly women, Black and Latino employees were struggling financially. The study also found that nearly 70% of the union’s members did not earn enough to support themselves and at least one child.

While the majority of Local 1000’s contracts will remain in effect until a new agreement is reached, members enrolled in CalPERS health insurance plans lost their monthly $260 health care stipend on June 30.

Some consider this as an additional reduction in pay that workers must endure. Local 1000 proposed a new monthly payment of $320 to cover those losses, but the state rejected that request, according to the bargaining update. Instead, the state countered with a three-tiered stipend — $30, $70 or $140 — depending on the employee’s chosen health plan.

Despite the complications and setbacks during current negotiations, Greene remains hopeful that an agreement will be reached that will benefit the workers she represents.

“I’m still optimistic. I still believe in my state, I believe in this negotiation process, and I still have hope that the state is going to live up to their end and that they’re going to be there for those who work for them,” she said. “My hope is still there. I believe we are going to get this done.”

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