Monday, July 5, 2011
By Ed Mendel

Bills strengthening the hand of public employee unions in bargaining for pay, pensions and working conditions are moving through the Legislature, usually on party-line votes with Democrats in support and Republicans opposed.

The new governor, Jerry Brown, dismayed fellow Democrats last week by vetoing a bill making it easier for farm workers to unionize in the private sector. Now he is likely to receive a number of bills pushed by powerful public employee unions.

Having a Democrat in the governor’s office, who relied on union contributions as he defeated a self-funded Republican who set a spending record, gives labor leaders the option of seeking legislative relief for some struggles with management.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, AFL-CIO, is sponsoring at least a half dozen bills, most opposed in lists of varying length by cities, counties, special districts, schools and their statewide associations.

A lobbyist for an employer group told a legislative committee the issue in one bill should be resolved through collective bargaining — a reminder that unions often say pension reform should be bargained, not imposed statewide by legislation.

A pension reform ballot measure, once discussed, was not part of the new state budget enacted last week, but an initiative is still a possibility. Meanwhile, two union-backed bills deal with other strategic issues: bankruptcy and switching to 401(k)-style plans.

After declaring bankruptcy three years ago, the city of Vallejo got a labor contract overturned in court. A bill, AB 506, would require a local government to go through a process with a “neutral evaluator” or the state auditor before declaring bankruptcy.

A similar bill last year, AB 155, requiring approval of a state commission or a state audit, died on the Senate floor at the end of session without a vote, possibly facing a veto from the former Republican governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

After Orange County declared bankruptcy in 1994, another union-backed bill making it more difficult for municipalities to declare bankruptcy was vetoed by a Republican governor, Pete Wilson.

While in bankruptcy, Vallejo, still struggling to emerge, did not attempt to alter its biggest debt (pensions), negotiated a new contract giving police a 7 percent raise last year, and has paid outside lawyers $10 million or more.

A Senate committee analysis of AB 506 said that since Vallejo declared bankruptcy in May 2008 only one other local government (Sierra Kings Health Care District) has declared bankruptcy, despite the financial strain of a deep recession.

“Vallejo’s experience may serve as a cautionary example, encouraging fiscally distressed local governments to find alternative approaches to fiscal restructuring,” said the committee analysis.

Another bill is a response to a drive by San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and others to place an initiative on the ballot next year switching all new city hires, except police, to a 401(k)-style individual investment plan.

In 1981, when former Gov. Pete Wilson was mayor, city employees in San Diego voted to drop out of Social Security and Medicare in exchange for a city promise of pensions and retiree health care.

The bill, AB 1248, requires local governments to provide Social Security for workers not receiving a pension. The additional employer cost, 6.2 percent of pay, could reduce the estimate of city savings from switching to a 401(k)-style plan.

An estimate by pension officials that the change would increase taxpayer costs during the first six years is already an issue. The outcome of a 401(k) vote in San Diego could be a trendsetter, influencing whether similar measures are proposed elsewhere.

Two bills would overturn rulings made by the administrator of state bargaining laws, the Public Employment Relations Board, when most of the members were Schwarzenegger appointees.

SB 857 would overturn a board ruling last year allowing employers to recover costs for preparing for unlawful strikes. The University of California seeks $9 million from the California Nurses Association for a 2005 strike blocked by court action.

AB 501 overturns rulings preventing unionization of some school employees, who are not teachers or in “classified” jobs such as food, maintenance and clerical. The bill applies to 70 joint powers agencies, mainly for transportation and vocational education.

Another bill, AB 646, allows unions to request a “fact-finding panel” when bargaining reaches impasse. Citing Torrance and Cerritos, a union lobbyist said employers can seek impasse to impose their “last, best and final offer” under current law.

A bill allowing more employees to get paid time off for union activities, AB 1203, is opposed by employers worried about mass vacancies and finding replacements. Unions pay the salary and benefits during leave for school employees, but not for county workers.

Athough armed with presumed new political power, Democrats and their union allies are willing to make some compromises.

Employers dropped opposition to a bill listing prohibited labor practices, including knowingly providing inaccurate information during bargaining, when the author of AB 1975 agreed to exclude job applicants and make other changes.

A bill prohibiting the hiring of “union avoidance” consultants and lawyers to deter or minimize worker rights, SB 931, was prompted by labor problems at the University of California.

A union lobbyist told an Assembly committee that UCLA employees setting up a union information table were “harassed and intimidated,” UC Irvine administration banned buttons advocating worker rights, and similar things happened at UC Berkeley.

But a long line of lobbyists said the broadly worded bill could create problems for other government agencies. Some of their concerns were mentioned by several Democratic members of the committee.

For example, government employers might be unable to hire consultants to evaluate health plans, attorneys to prosecute discipline issues, or outside help to resolve disputes prior to litigation.

When a Republican, Diane Harkey of Dana Point, pressed the author, Sen. Juan Vargas, D-San Diego, for a list of rights that cannot be “minimized” and suggested amendments before the bill was approved, she was interrupted by the chairman.

“I will determine whether something gets passed out of the committee or not,” Warren Furutani told Harkey, “and I will determine what we have as discussion.”

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