Members of SEIU Local 1021, representing Berkeley clerical and maintenance workers, demonstrate outside City Hall on June 6, 2018. Photo: Tracey Taylor

Update, June 16: The city and its clerical and maintenance workers have reached a tentative contract agreement after several weeks of negotiation which also saw a number of demonstrations by the workers’ union, SEIU 1021, as well as the threat of a strike. In a statement released June 15, the union said the proposed 2-year contract for the 600 or so workers includes cost-of-living adjustments to keep up with inflation, and a joint labor, management and community work group to develop an apprenticeship program. Rebecca Webb, who works in the city’s 311 call center and was a negotiator for SEIU, said. “Our city leaders heard our concerns, and I’m encouraged by their willingness to partner with us in coming up with solutions to the problems facing our city.”

Original story: City workers voted in favor of authorizing a strike if it is needed amid ongoing contract negotiations with Berkeley which, the workers say, are going badly.

SEIU 1021 held a demonstration outside City Hall Wednesday — the second protest in seven days — which included taking votes from the clerical and maintenance workers whose contracts are currently being negotiated.

On Thursday afternoon, the union announced that 99% of the “hundreds of city workers” who voted at City Hall authorized their bargaining team to call for a strike. A strike date has not been set.

“We are leaving all options open. The contract expires June 16 at midnight,” said SEIU Local 1021 spokesman Carlos Rivera.

Negotiations started two months ago.

Berkeley’s maintenance and clerical employees include sanitation workers, mechanics, parking enforcement officers and clerical staff. A total of 950 workers would go on strike if it went ahead, according to Rivera.

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

Danny Walker, a solid-waste truck driver and president of Local 1021’s maintenance chapter, said Wednesday during the boisterous demonstration that a strike was rarely the best outcome.

“I never want to have workers on strike,” he said. “It never benefits anyone.”

But Walker stressed that the safety of his fellow workers was his top priority, citing the 2016 death of Johnny Tolliver Sr., 52, a sanitation worker who died in Berkeley after a truck’s brakes failed. “Tolliver tried to save a garbage truck that should never have been on line,” he said. (Berkeley was later fined nearly $100,000 by Cal/OSHA for three penalties relating to the incident.)

Walker said those who operate equipment on a regular basis, like Tolliver did, should be the ones to determine whether they are safe to operate. Currently safety officers make that call and the city is unwilling to change the process, he said.

City workers vote on whether to allow a strike, during a demonstration outside City Hall on June 6, 2018. Photo: Tracey Taylor

In a June 6 memo to staff about the strike authorization vote, Berkeley City Manager Dee Williams-Ridley enumerated ways in which the city was batting above average in terms of compensation for its workers.

Among other things, she highlighted that the city pays 100% of all medical premium costs for employees and their families; and that a compensation survey commissioned by the city “confirms that the City’s current package against future increases already negotiated in the other jurisdictions places the City in the number 1 or 2 of the highest compensated.”

On the issue of safety, the memo noted that, “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.”  (Read the full memo.)

City workers have also filed charges with the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) against Berkeley managers alleging “intimidation of workers, unlawful surveillance, and interference with employees’ protected right to protest.”

Rebecca Webb, a customer service 311 operator, and one of the city employees who is part of the contract negotiation team, said the city is using “unprecedented intimidation tactics.”

She said both of the recent union demonstrations were held during workers’ authorized time — morning break and lunch break — but she had heard of at least a dozen cases where supervisors and managers had been intimidating staffers to not attend the protests.

“They have been calling employees and telling them not to go or they will suffer consequences,” she said. “That’s absolutely not OK, and I believe it’s illegal.” (See one of the filed charges.)

Asked about the vote to strike, Webb said it had sent a “really powerful message” to her as a negotiator. However, she said, “We’re really hoping not to have to strike. We are working diligently round the clock on the negotiations and I’m hopeful we won’t get to that point.”

Williams-Ridley also expressed optimism about the outcome of the contract negotiations: “We remain hopeful that we will reach an agreement soon to continue the high quality of services that the City’s many dedicated employees provides to its residents,” she wrote in the staff memo.

More negotiation meetings between the city and SEIU Local 1021 were set for today and also for June 9, 11 and 13.

The last time city workers went out on strike was 1972, according to Rivera.

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...