After a tense session lasting more than six hours, the Cerritos City Council narrowly ended negotiations with the Cerritos public employees union AFSCME Local 619 in a 3-2 vote Friday morning over a contract dispute lasting more than 10 months.
Mayor Carol Chen and councilmembers Jim Edwards and Bruce Barrows voted at 1:21 a.m. to impose the “last, best and final” offer for the remainder of the 2010-11 fiscal year, which will end June 30 while councilmembers Joseph Cho and Mark Pulido wanted to continue negotiations.
Screaming, cheering, groans and near silence summed up the emotions of the meeting as a large cadre of union supporters wearing green shirts and badges and a much smaller group of supporters of the city’s final offer to public employees packed the chamber to grab the attention of the City Council.
The City’s offer, among other things, called for keeping salaries for full-time, non-exempt employees the same and adjusting retiree health benefits. City officials have repeatedly stated throughout their public relations campaign that these adjustments were necessary in addressing the budget shortfall for the 2010-11 fiscal year.
Before the vote, Rep. Linda Sanchez, who represents Cerritos in the U.S. House of Representatives, spoke during public comment about offering her services to find common ground between the City and the Union.
“Whether it’s declaring an impasse or opposing a collective bargaining agreement on loyal city employees, I would encourage both sides to bargain together in good faith to reach a conclusion that is acceptable to all,” she said.
Cerritos city employees who spoke during public comment expressed anger at the City’s unwillingness to negotiate with Local 619 and spoke in favor of keeping the negotiations open.
“Here we are, yet again, today, in my last scheduled day at the end of my 960 hours, wondering when and if I can come back to work again,” said Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts employee Henry Lowe, who is hindered by the City’s cap on part-time employee hours. “Is it greedy to want to work and keep a roof over my family’s head?”
Zeke Marquez, an employee at the City’s Water Department and an executive board member of the Union, blasted the City for sending misleading information about the contract dispute with his paycheck. He took offense that his overtime work was a “generous gift” from the City.
“I earn my money and I work hard for it,” he said, noting the hardships of working on-call for the City. “They’re not gifts.”
Some union supporters at the meeting who did not speak waved green signs like “It’s About Freedom!” and “We Make America Happen & We Vote.” One union supporter held a hand-made sign asking “Why not give this guy’s $80,000 to your 40 part-timers,” referencing the City’s payment to an attorney hired as part of their negotiating team.
Supporters of the City’s “last, best and final offer” were unfazed at the show of support and warned of the dire consequences of not ending the negotiations.
Matt Knauble, president of the Cerritos Republican Club, blasted the Union for their demands such as salary increases for its employees and using scare tactics such as mailers comparing the issue to the recent Wisconsin union dispute to drive supporters of the City’s offer away from the Council meeting.
“The Union wanted an acrimonious relationship [with the City of Cerritos] and they got it,” he told Patch. “The question is: Will the local leaders be wise enough to take a step back and know they have essentially bit off more they can chew or will they have a citizen’s revolt on their hands next election cycle?”
In support of imposing the City’s demands to its employees for the remainder of the fiscal year, Mayor Chen spoke critically of Local 619 representatives who confronted her at a recent Farmer’s Market for telling residents that the “City Council lied” about what was said at the previous city council meeting regarding union negotiations, saying the accusations and the Union’s campaign against the City were “uncalled and unwarranted.”
“We are not to be influenced by special interests, unions or otherwise,” she said to the groans of union supporters. “We want to maintain, continue and further the growth of the city.”
Councilmember Pulido, who had not yet been elected to the Council when the City sent its “last, best and final” offer to the union in October, wanted to extend the contract negotiations between the City and Local 619.
“I’ve done the best I can to read all of this that they’ve thrown at me in the past month now and I’ve reached out to [City Manager] Art Gallucci and Denise so I could get an understanding of how they see things,” he said to union supporters before the meeting. “I don’t really like what I see. I’m greatly disappointed with the lack of courage from the City Council.”
Councilmember Cho sided with Pulido and called for more talks at the bargaining table. He argued that enforcing the offer by the City would not be different than waiting until the end of the fiscal year.
“The City will not save in the fiscal year 2010-11,” he said during the meeting. “There’s not much difference in imposing this tonight or seven months later.”
After the Council rejected Pulido’s motion to extend the contract negotiations for 60 days and supporting ending the negotiations, many union members left the chambers with disappointment.
Outside the Council chambers, Local 619 President Robert Nick Melendrez said that it was “very unfortunate Mayor Chen went the divisive route” and despite this setback, the Union will put up a long fight for the contract negotiations for the next fiscal year.
“Our only hope is that the Union will build more support from residents and an extra vote on the City Council,” he said.