Published: 29 December 2011 07:21 PM

Riverside County imposed pension changes on its largest union Thursday afternoon, a move that means 7,000 employees will begin paying more toward their own retirements starting next month.

The Laborers’ International Union of North American Local 777 had agreed in 2009 to negotiate changes in the pension plan for new and existing employees. But in a news release Thursday, the county said the union was unwilling to negotiate any changes.

In a letter Thursday to the union, Human Resources Director Barbara Olivier said the fundamental issue for the county in the negotiations was reducing costs to help the county cope with its fiscal woes. Given the “lack of response” from the union, Olivier said the county will be forced to impose the pension changes on current and new employees.

But Laborers’ Local 777 Business Manager Stephen Switzer on Thursday disputed the county’s characterization of how the negotiations unfolded, the declaration of an impasse in the contract talks and the imposed retirement changes.

“Our position was, and remains, that we are willing to engage in good faith bargaining on the issue of pension reform,” Switzer said by email. “The county, from the outset, clearly has had no intention in engaging in good faith negotiations.”

Switzer this week said the impasse is a clear statement that the county didn’t intend to bargain.

“If the county is serious about wanting to negotiate, then they will rescind their declaration of impasse, the validity of which is shaky at best, and come to the bargaining table with fair and open minds,” he said. “That is something we have yet to see from the county on this topic.”

The union’s options include challenging the imposed terms with the state, filing a lawsuit or asking members to strike as a possible recourse. Switzer told members Thursday the union would have a clearer picture of its legal strategy by Tuesday. A membership meeting is planned for Jan. 10 at the Riverside Convention Center.

The county faces an estimated $80 million budget gap between ongoing expenses and revenue and has been seeking ways to reduce expenses. Requiring the employees represented by the Laborers’ union to pay toward their own retirement would save the county $1.4million between now and June 30, and $8.9 million next year, county spokesman Ray Smith said Thursday.

With the changes for the Laborers’ union, the county has now imposed pension changes on its three largest employee groups. They imposed pay and benefit cuts on the Service Employees International Union Local 721 and the Riverside Sheriff’s Association earlier this year.

SEIU has said it was willing to accept changes in employee pensions but also sought pay and cost-of-living increases. Members ultimately rejected the county’s final offer, citing the pay cuts and a dispute over a fairness agreement with management.

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