On Tuesday morning, over 20 West County Wastewater District (WCWD) employees picketed outside the district’s headquarters on Hilltop Drive to denounce contract negotiations that have come to a screeching halt.
At the heart of the matter is a wastewater district that’s trying to save money during a global economic crisis, while at the same time repair pipes that are 70 to 90 years old. The men and women who go down manholes and work those pipes, however, feel they’ve been disrespected because, they say, after months of negotiations, district representatives will no longer sit at the table with Public Employees Union, Local One and discuss a new contract. Their old contract expired June 30. The contract dispute affects around 40 workers.
The union wants a 6 percent pay raise, protection of overtime benefits and a new flexible schedule for their workers. In addition, Local One is looking for binding arbitration for all grievances. They also want the district to raise the cap on the expenses covered by their health care plan.
According to a union pamphlet, workers are willing to help the wastewater district by agreeing to modifications to their pension plan and the union will return $32,000 per year in stipends to cover health care costs.
The district, according to their website, is negotiating to achieve cost containment measures to enable the district to provide its service to ratepayers at a reasonable cost. It wants to keep operating costs to no more than 3 percent growth year to year; institute a new, less costly set of retirement benefits for new employees; improve employee partnerships regarding the increasing costs of benefits; and improve the district’s ability to manage its operations.
Peter Tiernan, business agent for the union, said compared to other Bay Area wastewater districts, West County workers are between 6 and 11 percent behind the compensation curve. “Management claims that they want to give us a 3 percent raise, but after it’s all said and totaled, it’s actually a pay cut,” he said.
The district wants to limit some health insurance expenses. West County Wastewater District General Manager E.J. Shalaby said there’s a $1,500 dollar per month medical cap for the full Kaiser health insurance plan that is currently offered to employees, and a 90-10 split for dental premiums where the district picks up the 90 percent. “The union wants medical increases above the $1,500 dollar cap per month,” he said. “Medical premiums go up on average between 9 and 10 percent a year. The district can’t necessarily contain or control those costs, so by capping it we know what our expenditures are going to be.”
According to Tiernan, WCWD wants to remove language from CalPERS, the public employee’s retirement and health benefit contract, that will allow workers to purchase medical benefits on their own. “We’re not totally opposed to this idea,” he said. “But insurance rates may spike, and once a worker is out of CalPERS, they cannot return for five years.”
The workers who showed up on the picket line Tuesday said they were worried that changes to their health plan might create problems for employees who get sick. “Health and safety is everything,” said Thomas Johnson, a sewer line inspector who’s been working for the district for 15 years. “If we’re sick, we can’t work and take care of our families. It’s an unfair situation because upper management has a better medical benefit package.”
Johnson went on to say medical benefits should be treated with respect and seriousness, because many wastewater employees put themselves in danger by working on streets with heavy equipment where cars race by at 55 miles per hour.
Mike Mayorga, a 17-year wastewater worker, said he has never seen a contract negotiation like this. “It’s just a no-win for employees,” he said. “They want to take stuff away but they don’t want to sit down and negotiate with us. That’s what’s sad.”
District employees say the agency must carefully divide its funding between paying for pipe repairs and employee benefits. WCWD serves around 126,000 people and has 246 miles of sewer gravity pipelines, 18 pumping stations and 10 miles of force mains.
Shalaby said last year WCWD got a 7 percent parcel tax increase from ratepayers for the entire district’s operations, and roughly 4 percent of that money was being put aside in reserves to replace infrastructure that has already been identified as problematic. He went on to say they’re in the midst of a 20-year infrastructure master plan and initial estimate repair costs for infrastructure in the county are between $200 and $300 million.
“The board could have taken the entire 7 percent to make sure to get these repairs needed, but they were willing to respect the employees and say ‘Look, we know they do a good job for us and we want to accommodate by pulling some of the money out, knowing that we’re not going to have enough coming in to fully fund our infrastructural repairs, but willing to at least put some money aside to increase our expenses by about 3 percent,’” Shalaby said.
But Scott Brown, supervising business agent for the union, said district decisions have not been based on finances or public good, but rather on a philosophical position—that because the world economy is bad, Local One members should take the same hit. According to Brown, the district is scheduled to have a 21 percent revenue increase over the next three years.
“If my members are put in a position where they have to make a difficult choice of going out on the strike line, that’s not a decision they’re going to make lightly,” Brown said. “You want to bring a civilization to a standstill, stop the water from flowing, stop the waste from going somewhere.”
After 30 minutes of holding signs on the street that read “No paycuts,” “Workers demand respect,” and “Not on our backs again: Keep hands off benefits,” wastewater field workers marched into the WCWD board meeting to voice their concerns. Five workers walked up to the mic, and described to the five-member board of directors their labor contract frustrations. The board members listened to them and thanked them, then moved on with other business.
Because negotiations have reached an unofficial stand-still, the parties have now entered into a fact-finding process in which three fact-finders, one person from both parties and one independent person, usually from the state, conduct research to see if what is being argued carries weight. Under legislation signed by Governor Jerry Brown last year, the state requires public employers to fact-find prior to declaring a labor impasse. The outcome of this procedure is scheduled for September or October. Then WCWD board of directors can decide if they want to take the advice of this research or not, and Local One can decide if their workers will go on strike or not.