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

Published: 27 January 2012 08:34 PM

Riverside County will go to court Monday seeking to keep nearly 300 nurses and other health professionals from taking part in a day-long strike planned by the county’s second-largest union.

County officials this week appealed to a state labor relations board for help after the Service Employees International Union Local 721 informed officials at Riverside County Regional Medical Center that nurses planned to participate in the strike Tuesday.

The California Public Employment Relations Board decided Friday to go to court on the county’s behalf to try to prevent 274 nurses, lab technicians and other health care workers from striking. A hearing in Riverside County Superior Court is set for 9:30 a.m. Monday.

“We had to act when the union included those essential employees in its strike plans,” Board of Supervisors Chairman John Tavaglione said in a statement. “We cannot allow anyone to endanger our residents’ health or safety.”

The planned strike marks the latest escalation between the union and county management. SEIU Local 721 represents about 5,800 county workers, from clerks to nurses and 911 dispatch supervisors. The union’s chief negotiator said this week that more strikes are possible if the county does not return to contract talks.

The county declared an impasse and imposed terms on employees late last year as it sought labor concessions as a way to help overcome an estimated $80 million budget gap. Among those terms, employees are starting to pay more toward their own retirements.

But while the county is seeking to keep the nurses — many of whom will get an 8 percent raise starting next month — on the job, union members prepared Friday for the strike.

When the union rejected the county’s final contract offer, members authorized a strike for all 5,800 county workers represented by SEIU. It is unclear how many will not show up for work Tuesday, but union officials said they expect thousands to participate in the protests in front of the County Administrative Center on Lemon Street in Riverside.

The employees worked Friday to build thousands of strike signs and mobilize county workers to turn out for the strike. The union is challenging the pay and benefit cuts county supervisors imposed on them.

“Our hope is on Jan. 31 when we do our strike action, the Board of Supervisors will hear us and go back to the bargaining table,” Kristina Zaragoza, an SEIU member and a county welfare fraud investigator, said Friday as she made signs.

GROWING TENSION

Both sides have appealed to the California Public Employment Relations Board, which arbitrates labor disputes and the collective bargaining process in the state.

In a letter to the county this week, SEIU Local 721’s chief labor negotiator, Wendy Thomas, cited a labor board decision faulting the county for not providing enough information to the union during contract talks. Thomas also accused supervisors of violating the Brown Act, the state’s open meetings law, when they did not publicly announce the impasse and imposed contract terms immediately after a closed-session meeting.

County spokesman Ray Smith said Friday there was never an agreement with the union, so supervisors were under no legal obligation to report the matter out of its closed-session meetings.

“The board gave direction to the designated negotiating team, which is exactly what is allowed under the law,” Smith said.

The union has launched a direct-mail campaign accusing county officials of lavishing expensive perks on themselves and top management, while rank-and-file employees have taken furloughs and other cuts.

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