BY DUANE W. GANG
STAFF WRITER
dgang@pe.com

Published: 01 December 2011 08:42 PM

Riverside County is preparing for a possible strike by its second-largest union as labor tensions continue to rise between management and employees.

When the Service Employees International Union Local 721 rejected the county’s final contract offer last month, members authorized a strike as a possible work action.

Now, county officials are urging departments to come up with a contingency plan if large numbers of employees do not show up for work. There is no word on if or when SEIU will call for the work stoppage.

“To my knowledge, the county has never had a general strike,” Human Resources Director Barbara Olivier said by email. “There have been minor work disruptions such as ‘blue flu’ or sick-outs for short periods.”

In a telephone interview Thursday, Olivier said each department will develop different contingency plans depending on their needs. The plans include determining what positions are vital to public safety and welfare, she said.

In those cases, the county could go to court to compel employees to show up for work, Olivier said.

The possibility of a strike marks the latest in escalating tensions between the county and the SEIU, which represents about 5,800 workers from nurses to 911 dispatchers. Last month, the county imposed benefit cuts on SEIU employees.

And the turmoil could be a sign of things to come.

Two other county unions have told members they believe that no matter what they say during upcoming contract talks, the county will likely follow suit and impose pay cuts on employees.

ANY NECESSARY ACTION

Wendy Thomas, the SEIU’s chief labor negotiator, was attending the California State Association of Counties conference and unavailable by telephone this week.

But by email, she said members already authorized the bargaining team to call for “any job actions necessary, up to and including strikes.” Union members voted to reject the county’s final contract offer, but the union has declined to release the actual vote count. But Thomas said turnout was high.

The county declared an impasse in the negotiations Nov. 15 and a week later announced that it was imposing terms on employees. Under those terms, employees with more than five years of service were set to begin paying 3 percent of their salary toward their retirement Thursday. That would increase to 8percent by 2013.

Under the previous terms, employees contributed 8 percent toward their pensions for the first five years. After that, the county covered the contribution.

The SEIU filed a complaint with the California Public Employee Relations Board over the impasse, and members have vocally criticized the county.

Employees held a large rally at the County Administrative Center in Riverside last month and protested Thursday at the Mission Inn, where Supervisor Bob Buster was holding a re-election fundraiser.

About two dozen employees holding signs, all critical of Buster, were at each of the hotel’s entrances. One sign was held by a person with a mask on and said, “Bob Buster Riverside’s Grinch.”

Thomas said the SEIU still hasn’t received formal details of the imposed terms and wants the county to return to the bargaining table.

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