Union contracts for state workers remain in limbo

Most of California's unionized state employees are working under expired contracts and there appears little likelihood that new pacts will be negotiated in the near future. A tangle of lawsuits and a bad economy, among other factors, could even push back a resolution into next year.

"They (contracts) take time under every administration, some go quicker than others, but all of them take time," said Ted Toppin of the Professional Engineers in California Government. "I think this administration obviously has been burdened with a great many problems this year, as have state employees. We've born many of those burdens. We never give up in seeking a fair and honorable contract."

Twenty of the state's 21 bargaining units are operating under old contracts. The lone exception is the Highway Patrol, which negotiated a new contract covering more than 8,000 CHP personnel and received legislative approval. An amendment to that contract, relatively minor, awaits approval. The CHP agreement remains in effect until next July.

The largest state workers' union, the 92,000-member SEIU Local 1000 which encompasses nine of the 21 bargaining units, negotiated a contract with the Schwarzenegger administration but that pact was snared in budget issues and Capitol politics, and it has not yet received legislative approval. The Legislature is in recess and doesn't resume sessions until January, although if contract agreements are reached, Gov. Schwarzenegger could call a special session to consider them.

The longest-expired contract covers the California Correctional Peace Officers' Association, the state prison guards, whose pact expired in 2006. The 31,000-member CCPOA and the Schwarzenegger failed to reach agreement on a new contract, and the officers are now on the job under state-imposed conditions. Of 7,000 layoffs announced by the governor, most are in Corrections.

"There have been some discussions, with both sides recognizing that in order to effect change in Corrections we need to know what the expectations of the labor force are, and the best way to do that is through harmonious collective bargaining," said CCPOA spokesman Lance Corcoran.

All of the other bargaining units are working under their old contracts, which expired in 2007 or 2008.

"We're still in bargaining with everyone," said Lynelle Jolley, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Personnel Administration, which represents the Schwarzenegger administration in contract negotiations. "It's not unusual for state employees to work under an expired contract while the parties continue to negotiate."

"It's going as well as can be expected under the fiscal circumstances," she added.

But relatively little negotiating actually is going on and there is little discernible movement toward agreements, several labor officials said.

"Why should they (the administration) move if they can impose furloughs and take away holidays?" said Chris Voight, staff director of the California Association of Professional Scientists, which represents about 3,000 workers. "The idea from the administration that the negotiations are smoothly proceeding is  a big laugh. All state employees feel a little beat down by the administration."

CCPOA's Corcoran said some of the administration's short-term fiscal moves – such as the furloughs – carry long-term implications.

That is a "deferred liability," he said. "Some future governor and future Legislature will have to pay for it. (Former Gov. Pete) Wilson did this in the early 1990s. We have people with 144 hours of accrued time, which will be paid out not at 1991 dollars but at 2009 dollars. Like many things, this administration seems happy to pass it on to a future governor."

DPA noted, however, that delays potentially can benefit the unions, given current fiscal circumstances.

"Under the current contract, there are no financial incentives for the union to negotiate an agreement. Typically, they would be bargaining over the entire range of pay raises and benefit increases, which in the state's current economic conditions isn't happening," Jolley said.

Voight said his group has two lawsuits pending over the furloughs – one involving the first two furlough days, the other the third day.

Legal actions by SEIU 1000 include a challenge to the governor's constitutional authority, a claim that the governor violated the state's Administrative Procedures Act, a claim -since upheld — that furloughs at the State Compensation Insurance Fund were unlawful, and a contention that state workers paid from fee-supported special funds should be exempted from furloughs. These and other court challenges are pending.

Apart from the legal challenges, the outlook for the state's fiscal condition is uncertain. There is the likelihood that, absent corrective action, the state will face another multibillion-dollar budget shortage, which could result in new rounds of cuts, layoffs and furloughs.

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