Berkeley city employees have come out in force in recent weeks to push for better pay and benefits for workers who are part of SEIU Local 1021.

The city has created a website to share bargaining documents and other resources

The union chapter represents nearly 500 of the city’s 1,400 or so workers. They are librarians, planners, senior services, mental health and homeless outreach team members, council aides and IT staff, among many other workers within the Community Services / PTRLA chapter.

Dozens upon dozens of these employees have been turning up at public meetings to urge city officials to bake cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) into the contract so pay keeps up with inflation, which is how it works for City Council salaries; give benefits to the city’s part-time recreation workers; and reduce the amount newer workers are required to pay into their pensions.

This year, for the first time in the city’s history that anyone can recall, SEIU 1021 asked the city to make contract negotiations available to the public for viewing. Generally, these discussions take place behind closed doors and participation is limited. After several weeks of consideration, the city agreed to the union’s request and held the first open bargaining session in mid-June.

This approach to bargaining provides a rare opportunity for the public to see how both sides review each other’s proposals and work to come to an agreement.

Khin Chin, an SEIU bargaining team member who works for the Berkeley Fire Department, told Berkeleyside on Friday that the union pushed for public access to make the process more transparent.

“We really do feel like we’re in alignment with the community,” Chin said. “That’s what you do: You give the community access.”

“The process is better the more people who are paying attention,” added bargaining team member Andrea Mullarkey, who works at the Berkeley Public Library.

Union members have also made their presence felt during a series of City Council meetings focused on the budget this month. On Thursday, when a council subcommittee talked about budget plans, countless workers called in to share their stories of being unable to afford to live in Berkeley, in part because their salaries have not kept up with inflation.

Many also said they have been frustrated by a two-tiered system that requires newer workers to pay twice as much into their pensions as the state requires. It’s demoralizing to do the same job as a longer-term employee, they said, but to take home much less in pay. The union says Berkeley has set a much higher bar than other cities as far as what portion of their paychecks is diverted to pensions, and that the city should adjust this amount to ease the burden on staff.

Workers also have said the city needs to do more to fill vacancies faster. Right now, there are more than 200 vacant positions within the city workforce: 31 at the Berkeley library alone and another 180 in other city departments, according to city administrators.

The vacant positions mean the workers who remain have had to pick up the slack, while the city uses salary savings from open slots to help balance the budget, Chin said: “The workers are paying the bill for the flexibility in the budget right now.”

Workers who have spoken out publicly have consistently focused on similar themes: that they are proud to serve a community that has such progressive values but that, if the city can’t add a COLA and fix the pension disparities faster than what the city has proposed, they may need to look elsewhere for work.

Chin noted that Berkeley residents expect a high level of service and that Berkeley often strives to be the best at what it does. He said the city should strive to compensate its workers accordingly.

Mullarkey said that one of the union’s asks this year was to give part-time recreation workers health insurance, access to city trainings, compensation when activities are rained out and other benefits. These workers are particularly vulnerable, she said: Last year, when COVID-19 hit, “they were all sent home basically without pay and a link to unemployment.”

Mullarkey said 100 of the union’s members don’t even have city email addresses because they are at-will employees who don’t receive benefits.

In recent weeks, SEIU 1021 members have also urged the city to handle negotiations in-house and fire its outside negotiator, Dania Torres Wong of Sloan Sakai Yeung & Wong LLP, because of what workers have described as an unwillingness to work out an equitable solution to the union’s proposals.

Many of those complaints came out during a recent City Council meeting shortly before officials voted to increase Sloan Sakai’s contract from $450,000 to $665,000. The firm is handling negotiations between the city and seven of its bargaining units, representing the bulk of the city’s workforce.

At least one of those unions, Public Employees Union Local 1, has been out of contract since June 2020 and reported during a public meeting Thursday that it may have to declare an impasse and possibly strike.

On Friday, the city told Berkeleyside that bargaining with workers has taken place in good faith, adding that, “our employees should be treated and compensated fairly, based on comparable public employee compensation packages around the region.”

The city also has a responsibility to the broader community, it said in a prepared statement, “to ensure that our employees’ salaries and benefits are structured in a way that is fiscally sound for the short and long-term and also fosters public trust.”

The SEIU 1021 contract is set to expire this weekend, and the final Zoom session currently scheduled is slated to begin Friday at 7 p.m.

(Note: The scheduled start time for Friday’s bargaining session changed shortly after publication because the City Council has not completed a previously scheduled closed session hearing that began at 2:30 p.m. We have updated the story to reflect the new time. Also, the city provided the official number of library vacancies after publication and Berkeleyside has updated the story to reflect this.)

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist of the Year...