In from the cold: Prison officers’ union gears up

California’s prison guards’ union hasn’t been happy since 2006, when it was still savoring the fruits of a lucrative pact it had successfully negotiated earlier with the state.  

In the years since, the Schwarzenegger administration and the 28,000-member California Correctional Peace Officers Association have been bitter foes.

But with Gov.-elect Jerry Brown headed back to office, all the CCPOA wants for Christmas is a contract. And it may happen.  

“CCPOA and the members worked hard to help elect Jerry Brown. Now that the campaign is over we can begin talking with Gov.-elect Brown and his team about what it will take to better our working conditions,” the CCPOA wrote in a letter to its members.  The union spent at least $1.8 million backing Brown or opposing his rival, GOP contender Meg Whitman.

Will Brown deliver?

“We’re very hopeful,” said Lance Corcoran, chief of Governmental Affairs for the CCPOA.

“We’re hoping that under the Brown administration we’ve got people that can honor their word. But it didn’t matter if we’d elected Santa Claus. The reality is that there has to be some tightening of the belt and we recognize that,” he added.

The CCPOA enjoyed a cushy contract back in 2006 that it negotiated years earlier with former Gov. Gray Davis. Correctional officers’ salaries were linked to those of Highway Patrol officers, that meaning prison guards, among others represented by the CCPOA, received the same salary increases as the CHP. Benefits, overtime, and uniform allowances also went up.

But when Gov. Schwarzenegger took office in November 2003, things changed.

In the summer of 2007 the CCPOA’s contract was in the midst of  renegotiations and Schwarzenegger sought to cut the ties between CCPOA and CHP salaries, and offered pay increases at a lower rate than the previous contract.   

Negotiations quickly turned ugly.

After the CCPOA refused the governor’s offer, the state called in a mediator. Then, arbitrator Norman Brand was brought in to the negotiations and ruled that the state was no longer obligated to raise CCPOA salaries at the rate of CHP salaries. Brand also ruled that since the CCPOA’s contract had ended, the state no longer had to pay any additional salary increases to correctional officers.

CCPOA backed away from the bargaining table empty handed and they’ve been without a contract ever since.

Corcoran said there’s been bad blood between correctional officers and the state ever since negotiations went sour.  

“The mindset that has come down from the top is that we’re going to break the unions, or whatever, and it’s unnecessary. We exist not necessarily to rob the taxpayers but certainly to support the members who put their lives at risk,” said Corcoran.  

But the CCPOA is looking forward to the turn in tables come January when Brown comes into office. The union may be in luck if the old adage, “history repeats itself,” holds true in the Brown administration.

During Brown’s first tenure as California’s governor, he famously appointed a labor union power force, Marty Morgenstern, as the head of the Department of Personnel Administration, the government body that mediates contract negotiations between unions and the governor.

Now, Morgenstern is Brown’s top advisor on labor. Barry Broad, a labor union lobbyist like Morgenstern, is rumored to be Brown’s new choice for the head of the DPA.

Both declined to discuss the issue.

“I think there is an honor there, a respect there. So, it certainly gives us hope,” said Corcoran in response to rumors that Broad may become the new DPA head.

“But it doesn’t necessarily mean he’s a soft touch…The difference is that we believe when a man makes a deal it is a deal. Certainly we have confidence that should we make a deal, that it is something that will be stood behind.”

DPA spokesperson Lynelle Jolley said she has not been made aware of any official negotiations between Brown and CCPOA, but added that the door is “always open” for renegotiations and that sometimes those negotiations germinate through unofficial talks.

“You never can predict these things,” Jolley said.

So, what’s on the wish list for the elusive CCPOA contract?

According to Corcoran, the CCPOA would be willing to accept less glamorous terms than their earlier contract offered them.

“Obviously money right now is something that probably is not a reality. However, the ability to enforce a contract is important,” said Corcoran.  

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