The Senate Rules committee is holding up the confirmation of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s top labor negotiator in an effort to kick-start contract negotiations between the state and the prison-guards union.
The decision to delay a vote on David Gilb’s confirmation as head of the state Department of Personnel Administration came after a three-hour hearing last week in which Gilb was grilled by Democrats and Republicans alike. Gilb must win Senate confirmation by July 1 or step down.
In the end, Senate President Pro Tem Don Perata, who chairs the Rules Committee, told Gilb to return next Wednesday, June 20, when his nomination will be put to a vote.
The bulk of the hearing involved questions from the panel over the state’s handling of contract negotiations with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association.
“Personally, I’m ready to confirm you. I’m not holding you hostage over getting this thing done,” Perata told Gilb at the June 4 hearing. “I just think it would be a damn shame to miss this opportunity.”
The union representing the state’s 31,000 prison guards has been without a contract since July 2006. Last month, a state board ruled that contract negotiations were at an initial impasse, and asked for an outside mediator to intervene.
The move ups the stakes in the negotiation process. The next step would be to rule that the talks were at a “hard impasse.” If a hard impasse is declared, the state can represent a final offer and then impose a deal, even without the union’s agreement.
Gilb stated repeatedly that negotiations were not yet at that point. And he insisted that his team has made a generous offer to the prison guards, but has received no counteroffers back from the union. “We have given them a proposal that we think offers an 18 percent pay raise over four years,” Gilb said.
At the hearing, Gilb came under fire from senators Gilbert Cedillo, D-Los Angeles, and Alex Padilla, D-Sylmar, for his handling of the state’s negotiations with the prison-guards union.
Padilla said he was “surprised” that Gilb had not spent more time personally bargaining with the union, opting instead to leave the negotiations in the hands of his bargaining team.
“On a negotiation of this significance, for a department that is clearly front-burner for us, for you to not engage further surprises me.”
But some of the harshest criticism, surprisingly, came from Republican Sen. Roy Ashburn of Bakersfield. Ashburn was particularly miffed that negotiations seem headed toward a formal impasse.
“We don’t have an agreement, and we’re off into Never Never Land now as a result of your decision,” Ashburn said.
At another point, Ashburn attacked Gilb for seeming to offer contradictory answers to some of the questions coming from the panel.
“My god, you’re here for confirmation. You’ve got this major issue hanging over your head. Every word that you say is being analyzed. And now the explanation is, ‘Oops, I made a mistake.’ No wonder we can’t get an agreement.”
The contract impasse has been a major obstacle in bringing about change to the state’s embattled prison system. Federal regulators have threatened to take the prisons over unless the state can alleviate its overcrowding problem. Earlier this year, the Legislature passed a prison-overhaul bill, which was opposed by the guards’ union.
“This whole prison thing could implode,” said Perata. “I wish that CCPOA’s contract was the biggest part of the problem. It ain’t. But it occurs to me repeatedly that we cannot run this place unless we get some kind of an accord and agreement.”
Padilla said he was “particularly concerned about what seems to be a lack of progress really since we voted on [a new prison-bond package].”
Gilb blamed the breakdown of the contract talks on the union. “We have attempted to have face-to-face negotiations with CCPOA for over a year. It has not worked very well,” he said.
CCPOA President Mike Jimenez testified against Gilb’s confirmation, saying his negotiators have often come to contract talks unprepared and uncooperative.
“Mr. Gilb has been at the table with us for 15 minutes, and he walked out,” said Jimenez. “There hasn’t been this huge effort to make a deal.” Jimenez added that Gilb’s negotiators have “been dishonorable and dishonest with us in all of their dealings.”
Among those who testified on Gilb’s behalf was lobbyist Aaron Read, who testified on behalf of the California Department of Fire, the state’s largest firefighters association, who Read represents.
“We have great respect for him. It’s, I think, the most difficult job in state government. I admire the fact that somebody’s got to do it, and I don’t think you’re going to find anybody better.”
Read also suggested that Gilb was not to blame for the stalled talks between the union and the state. “Department of Finance plays a major role. Both of us here would ever expect that Mr. Gilb could do it the way he wants. He has to answer to Finance and to the Horseshoe, and all of us know that.”