SEIU Local 1021 members at City Hall protest what they say are stalling contract negotiations, on Wednesday, May 30. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Willie Nelson says it’s time the city of Berkeley gave its workers their dues. Nelson, who maintains and repairs the city’s sewers as part of its Public Works department, says city employees did not demand a raise for several years during the economic downturn, and now it’s time that Berkeley stepped up for its workers. “We just want a fair contract,” he said.

Nelson was one of dozens of blue-collar city workers — from trash collectors through mechanics and parking enforcement officers — who showed up Wednesday morning to a rally on the steps of City Hall organized by SEIU Local 1021.

The demonstration was upbeat with refreshments on offer for protesters and catchy music blaring from speakers competing with loud horn blasts of support coming from passing garbage trucks.

Contract negotiations for Berkeley’s maintenance and clerical employees have been proceeding for four months, said SEIU Local 1021 field representative José Martinez, and are slated to end on June 16, but the two sides are not seeing eye to eye. While it’s not unusual for such negotiations to drag on over many weeks, Martinez believes these discussions represent a departure because “the city is being unusually mean-spirited.”

The three main sticking points center on health-and-safety processes, compensation and a community outreach program proposed by the union which, Martinez said, the city is failing to support.

The 2016 death of a sanitation worker caused by a truck’s failed brakes, was cited several times during the rally with regard to health-and-safety policy changes employees would like the city to adopt.

Johnny Tolliver Sr., 52, was working as part of a two-person team collecting trash on Parnassus Road in the Berkeley Hills when the garbage truck lost its brakes and rolled, pinning Tolliver against a utility pole. Berkeley was subsequently fined nearly $100,000 by Cal/OSHA for three penalties relating to the incident.

“Workers should have the right to shut down equipment they believe to be hazardous,” said Martinez. “Solid waste work is more dangerous then being a sworn officer.”

On compensation, the union is asking for a consumer-price-index (CPI) wage increase. Sandra Lewis, president of the SEIU clerical chapter, said, “All we are asking is for our wages to keep up with the cost of living.”

Nathan Dahl, community development program coordinator for Berkeley and chapter president of SEIU for community services, told protesters Wednesday that “cost of living adjustments are not raises, these are adjustments due to inflation and the rapidly declining value of our paycheck based on the massive inflation in the Bay Area.”

Dahl’s comments were echoed by City Councilman Kriss Worthington who attended the rally in a personal capacity, and expressed support for the workers.

SEIU is also proposing a community program whereby some of the money coming into the city from the cannabis tax be funneled towards training community members who were negatively impacted by what union members called “the war on drugs” to qualify for city jobs.

“This is about cannabis equity,” Martinez told Berkeleyside, adding that many of those who were penalized for drug offenses while marijuana was illegal were people of color. The proposal is “a common good,” he said.

Asked to respond to the union’s complaints, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said: “We deeply value our employees and we fully support their rights to hold a rally. We’re actively working to come to an agreement with SEIU. We’ve had ten meetings so far and more are scheduled. We are committed to reaching an agreement on a contract that’s fair and also recognized the city’s fiscal limits.” Chakko said the city could not comment on contract specifics while negotiations were ongoing.

Tracey Taylor is co-founder of Berkeleyside and co-founder and editorial director of Cityside, the nonprofit parent to Berkeleyside and The Oaklandside. Before launching Berkeleyside, Tracey wrote for...