Palo Alto's largest labor union voted Thursday to authorize a strike if the city continues to call for long-term concessions from the workers.
Close to 400 city workers turned out for the Thursday vote, according to Lynn Krug, who chairs the Service Employees International Union Chapter 521. The union represents 617 city workers whose contracts expired on June 30. The city has been negotiating with the union on a new contract since May.
"We don't want to have to strike, but this vote gives the negotiating team the option of being able to do this," Krug said.
Krug said about 95 percent of the voters supported authorizing a strike if the city doesn't scale back its demands. Among the most controversial of these has been the city's offer to reduce its contribution for retirees' medical costs from 100 percent to 80 percent. The city has also proposed switching its formula for calculating pension payments from the current "2.7 at 55" plan (under which a worker receives 2.7 percent of highest salary for each year of service for retirement at 55) to a "2 at 60" plan.
Krug said the number of workers who showed up to vote Thursday was roughly twice the number of those who typically vote on a contract. The majority made it clear that they could not afford to make the type of concessions the city is seeking, she said.
The labor union includes workers from most city departments, including utility workers, park employees, planners, librarians and administrative assistants. SEIU workers make up 59 percent of the city's work force. An average worker receives a salary of $72,662 ($114,575 if benefits are taken into account).
The Thursday vote is the latest indicator of the increasingly rancorous tone the city's negotiations with the union have taken. Negotiators from the two sides have met more than a dozen times since May and are scheduled to meet again Wednesday.
The city is trying to close a projected $10 million budget gap in the current fiscal year. City Manager James Keene has consistently argued that the city needs to make long-term adjustments to worker benefits to close the city's structural deficit. The city hopes to reduce its SEIU-related expenses by about $3.8 million this year.
City Manager James Keene couldn't be reached Friday, but the city's official website states on its Labor Negotiations page that the city and the union "remain far apart on economic issues."
"The city continues to believe that a reasonable settlement is possible," the website states, noting that more meetings are scheduled for August. The website also states that the union has indicated that its present deadline for settlement in Sept. 15.
"If settlement is not reached by that time, a labor dispute may ensue," the website states.
Krug said the union has not discussed a potential date for calling a strike. The decision on whether or not a strike will actually happen depends largely on whether the city changes its demands, she said.
"I think if we need to strike, we will have the confidence and ability to do so," Krug said. "But the city will ultimately determine whether that happens, not me and not the organization."