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Union rep blasts council

May 5, 2004

Union rep blasts council
By DAN WHITE
Sentinel staff writer

SANTA CRUZ — The ongoing budget crisis means larger workloads and postponed pay hikes for public-sector "rank and file" workers, from cashiers to building inspectors.

These workers, represented by Service Employees International Union, received their last pay hike, of 4¼ percent, in April 2002.

Salaries have been frozen since that cost-of-living adjustment. Now SEIU, which represents about 450 city employees, has agreed to postpone potential pay raises at least until December, continuing its collective bargaining agreement into the fall because of a projected $1.7 million city budget deficit.

Mayor Scott Kennedy said the union’s action will give city government time to react to potential state government takeaways.

Over the past two years, about 70 positions have been chopped from the city’s payroll. Of those positions, more than half fell under SEIU representation.

SEIU took its recent action in large part to avoid or at least minimize future layoffs. While union reps said they want the workers to work in concert with the city to weather the budget crisis, they say employees have already given back too much.

City workers faced an optional weeklong unpaid furlough in December while library staffers had a mandatory unpaid furlough in April.

For some of the library employees, the furlough amounted to a 6 percent loss in pay.

Leslie Auerbach, who works in youth services for the Central branch of the Santa Cruz public library system, said workers are working harder to make up for consolidations.

"Everywhere you look, people are trying to do the same amount of work with fewer bodies," said Auerbach, who is also a union steward for SEIU and a member of the executive board.

These salaries range from about $12 an hour for cashiers at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium to around $30 an hour for engineering technicians and senior building inspectors. SEIU does not represent the much higher-paid administration and department heads.

Leslie Scanagatta, chief spokesperson for SEIU Local 415, said the city has been remiss in not encouraging more revenue development.

Scanagatta, who has also called for pay reductions to the highest-paid city administrators, said the council and residents have discouraged businesses that could help sustain services and staffing levels.

While she says the current council, compared to its predecessors, is "trying to get out of this anti-growth perception," she expressed concern about "efforts to make it more difficult for Home Depot to come in."

She was referring to the efforts of Home Depot opponents to institute a moratorium on large home/garden operations in industrial zones, and also to the City Council considering a use permit requirement for such businesses in industrial areas.

Home Depot, the world’s largest home-improvement business, has been eyeing the vacant Lipton’s building in the industrial Westside.

"We need to get out of this whole ‘not in my town’ attitude," Scanaggata said. "I just don’t know how much more the workers can give. If the city wants services, if it wants to keep the library open, they need to quit stalling and opposing every revenue-generating project that comes our way."

Councilman Mike Rotkin said the budget picture remains so dire that there are no guarantees when it comes to future layoffs or cutbacks.

But he said the City Council is not even close to making a decision on the Home Depot proposal.

"I don’t think the City Council has been dragging its feet about revenue-generating," he said. "We are not the ones who decided, ‘Let’s put a spike in Home Depot.’ There are a lot of citizens concerned about the impacts of Home Depot. The city must take those concerns seriously, whether we approve it or not, but it’s premature to say we’re thwarting revenue development."

The SEIU’s decision closely follows a move, in late March, by unions representing police and firefighters, to forgo guaranteed pay raises for six months each of the next three years, saving a projected $300,000 annually for the next three years.

But it’s difficult to predict how much money the SEIU delay will save because the bargaining unit was still negotiating a new contract at the time of its decision.

SEIU workers will soon be expected to kick in a larger share of their Public Employee Retirement System costs.

The city’s payments to the PERS system are slated to climb from $3.9 million to $5.1 million in the next year.

Under PERS, when public safety workers in Santa Cruz turn 50, they become eligible for benefits equivalent to 3 percent of their salary for every year of their employment. For non-public safety employees of the city, benefits kick in when they are 55, and amount to 2 percent of their salary for every year of employment.

Contact Dan White at dwhite@santacruzsentinel.com

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