Berkeley City Employees Consider Strike

Janis Mara (BCN)
Wednesday June 06, 2018 - 09:05:00 PM

Garbage truck horns blared, workers chanted, Aretha Franklin's "Respect" blasted and hundreds of city workers demonstrated for safer conditions and better pay outside Berkeley City Hall today. 

Billed as an opportunity for the city's maintenance and clerical employees to vote on whether to go on strike, the 12:30 p.m. downtown event was a combination picket line, rally and block party. 

The block of Milvia Street where City Hall is located was blocked off between Center Street and Allston Way. Before the event began, about six white city trucks rolled down the street, horns blasting. About 13 city parking enforcement vehicles parked up and down the block. 

"Make some noise!" Sandra Lewis, an accounting technician and clerical staff union leader, yelled to the crowd as she stood by the entrance to City Hall. 

Contract negotiations for Berkeley's maintenance and clerical employees have been going on for two months and are scheduled to end June 16, according to Carlos Rivera of the Service Employees International Union Local 1021. 

The three points of contention are health and safety processes, compensation and a community outreach program proposed by the union, according to Rivera. 

The approximately 1,500 members of the local include trash collectors, mechanics and parking enforcement officers. The union passed out burritos and bottled water today and members stepped up to a sidewalk table and voted on whether to strike. 

"It's health and safety. One of our own was killed," Jenny Seay, an accounting technician, said in an interview. 

Seay was referring to the death of 52-year-old Johnny Tolliver, a city of Berkeley sanitation worker who was killed when he was apparently pinned between a garbage truck and a utility pole while on his regular route in the Berkeley hills in 2016. 

The California Division of Occupational Safety and Health issued six citations after investigating the death. Initially, the agency imposed penalties of $98,805, but the city appealed and the penalty was reduced to $31,810, Frank Polizzi, a spokesman for Cal/OSHA, said in response to an inquiry. 

In response, Matthai Chakko, a city spokesman, said, "Safety of employees is paramount. The city has proposed additional safeguards that Zero Waste drivers are required to immediately report and cease driving any vehicle that may be unsafe until cleared by the mechanic staff." 

As Wednesday's event rolled along, workers walked a picket line outside City Hall, carrying signs including, "Support the union - a livable income in the most expensive state." 

Chakko said that the city "deeply values its employees," saying that Berkeley pays 100 percent of all medical premium costs based on the Kaiser premiums for employees and their families. 

Also, Chakko said, out of 11 comparable city and county agencies, SEIU 1021's clerical and maintenance members are in the top two of the highest compensated such workers. 

Out of the 11 agencies surveyed by the city, only Berkeley and Santa Clara County use the highest pension formula offered for employees, Chakko said. 

The spokesman said Berkeley is challenged with pension costs that "are expected to rise over the next five years to unsustainable levels." 

Chakko added that 74 percent of the city's general fund budget is dedicated "to funding employees who provide quality service to city of Berkeley residents."  

Pension and health care costs are rising by 2.27 percent, or $5 million, starting this July, in addition to increases currently being negotiated, he said. 

He also noted that there are currently more retirees receiving medical contributions than active employees. The city's retiree medical costs have seen double-digit increases in healthcare premiums over the past two years, he said. 

"The city is developing a plan to begin funding these costs to ensure that the employees' retiree medical program is sustainable," Chakko said. 

The deadline for voting on the strike was 5 p.m. today and the results should be known by Thursday afternoon, according to Rivera.