By Doug Porter
This week (Wednesday, March 15), unions and community groups will appear before the County Board of Supervisors to urge them to begin negotiations on a new labor agreement.
What would normally be a matter of negotiating pay and benefits for 10,000 San Diego County employees has become another front in the battle for social justice, thanks to a strategy called ‘bargaining for the common good’ adopted by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) local 221.
The SEIU has invited representatives from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for Policy Initiatives, the Community Advocacy Network and other groups to join them at the bargaining table and participate in negotiations.
The County is aghast at the idea and has thus far refused to even allow talks to begin. For more than a year, the Invest in San Diego Families coalition has been working to craft a comprehensive program addressing the County’s responsibility to deliver quality services alongside traditional bargaining for improvements in wages and working conditions.
If you had to pick one entity capable of addressing local social justice and inequality challenges, it would have to be the County of San Diego. As the primary agency for administration of public health, and social services for an area larger than the combined states of Rhode Island and Delaware, with 3.3 million residents, its potential for good or bad policies is significantly greater than most people realize.
On February 1, the coalition held a rally outside the County Operations Center in response to the State of the County address by Board of Supervisors Chairwoman Dianne Jacob. Not one of the seven priorities–improving streets, building parks, pensions, seniors, technology, public safety and building bonds in the community– for the coming year in Jacob’s speech spoke directly to the issues of inequality, poverty, and health care.
After Jacob’s address, a coalition called “Invest in San Diego Families” rallied outside with their own version of the State of the County. The Center on Policy Initiatives shared a study showing a third of working age families in San Diego County cannot make ends meet.
CPI Research Director Peter Brownell said the County Supervisors could adopt a living wage like the San Diego city council has done, rather than paying some contractors minimum wage.
David Trajillo, advocacy director of the ACLU, said, when it comes to mental health, the county still invests more in punishment than in prevention.
“Since 2009 there’s been an 84 percent increase in mental health calls,” Trajillo said, “and yet more and more of these people continue to end up in jails because we’re not providing the proper services they need.”
What They Want
The bargaining program for the Invest in Families Coalition is simple:
…residents and employees are coming together to demand that San Diego County put the needs of its community first for a change. For too long, the County has prioritized hoarding funds rather than meeting the County’s needs for Good Jobs, Smart Justice, and a Safety Ladder that truly help residents move ahead in our society. Now the County Supervisors have added giving themselves 12.5 percent salary increases to their top priorities, when poverty in San Diego is higher than during the Great Recession. Community members and those who serve them must come together to fight for change that will benefit all San Diegans.
San Diego County’s strategic mission is to “promote a safe, healthy and thriving community,” but the only way to achieve that mission is to invest in critical services and programs and in the people who provide them. To fulfill the mission, San Diego County must fully commit to the following:
- THE SAFETY LADDER: Transforming the safety net into a safety ladder that helps people climb out of poverty and despair through full-enrollment and funding for health care, mental health, nutrition, housing and jobs programs that are accessible to all residents of San Diego.
- SMART JUSTICE: Moving from the ineffective justice system based on reactive punitive practices to a system that funds and supports education, proactive engagement, mental health and drug treatment, rehabilitation and full reintegration into our communities.
- GOOD JOBS: San Diego County programs suffer from short-stang, antiquated technology and underfunding. Because salaries and benefits have not kept up with the cost of living, County employees are among the lowest-paid public servants in California. In fact, many county employees must depend on food assistance from CalFresh and other public benets to support their families. By making salaries competitive with other counties, San Diego County will reduce turnover, increase the quality of county services and improve the economy of the region.
The Union-Tribune covered the lack of talks, as the SEIU and County filed unfair practice charges against each other:
Contracts between the county and SEIU expire in June, and the most recent negotiations are the first time that the union has brought in outside organizations.
“This is real work and we think that our perspective is stronger with dialogue and partnership with community organizations,” said David Lagstein, SEIU’s political director.
These types of groups understand the county’s work, and its finances, and brings a perspective of the county residents the union’s members serve, he said.
The appeal for supporters of the coalition to appear at this week’s Board of Supervisors meeting included the following statement:
As County employees and members of the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition, we have legally elected a bargaining team to negotiate with the County for the County employees. Unfortunately, the County of San Diego has decided to avoid its obligation to bargain in good faith in a way we believe to be in violation of the law.
As County employees and members of the Invest in San Diego Families Coalition, we call on the County Board of Supervisors to immediately begin bargaining in good faith so we can work together to ensure that the services provided to our communities actually grow our economy and are invested throughout San Diego County.
Breaking Thru Traditional Barriers
Historian Joseph A. McCartin, writing in Dissent Magazine, characterizes this new type of community/labor coalition as one going beyond traditional efforts at building alliances to support binary negotiations between unionized workers and their direct employers.
Now these alliances are being forged to bargain together on behalf of workers and their communities.
In an era where capitalism has evolved in ways that undermine traditional labor organizing, McCartin says Bargaining for the Common Good represents a new approach to confronting the forces driving inequality and disempowerment in communities.
From the Dissent article:
Three principles have characterized the Bargaining for the Common Good approach so far. First, participants are consciously attempting to transcend the traditional bargaining frameworks that are written into law. In doing so, they are trying to force the powerful financial entities that dominate their local economies to the bargaining table in some fashion—whether they are direct employers or not—by highlighting the extent to which these entities control the true allocation of power and resources in their community. Participants thus seek to use the bargaining process as a lever to challenge the relationships between government and the private-sector entities that often drive public policy, extract profits from government, and set the parameters for government activity.
Second, unions and community allies are jointly crafting bargaining demands and are thinking of individual campaigns as steps in a long-term strategy of worker and citizen empowerment. Rather than coalitions in which unions recruit community allies to support their pre-formulated demands in a transactional relationship that usually dissolves at the end of a campaign, these allies seek something different. They try to build enduring alignments that accumulate lasting power over time through campaign victories, a shared and increasingly fleshed out infrastructure, and a common vision and narrative.
Third, these efforts have proceeded on the assumption that collective action and occasionally, even civil disobedience, will likely be necessary if workers and citizens are to reverse the powerful trends that have been promoting inequality and undermining democracy. Traditional political action and bargaining strategies are no longer sufficient. At the same time these efforts have recognized that militancy and collective action are most likely to succeed when their practitioners can credibly claim that they are advancing the common good rather than their own special interests.
In May 2014, the Kalmanovitz Initiative at Georgetown University and its partners convened 140 organizers to discuss a new approach to public budget campaigns that unites public service workers and the communities they serve.
….the principles of Bargaining for the Common Good to put work in California, Minnesota, New Jersey, Oregon, Washington, and many other parts of the country. In Los Angeles, an alliance of labor, community, and faith groups came together to successfully restore vital public services such as maintenance and sanitation workers that keep the city clean and functional. In Washington state, teachers collaborated with parents and students to pass a statewide referendum that reduces class sizes with a priority on schools that have high poverty rates. In Chicago, an impressive coalition of workers and community organizers are standing up to the austerity agenda and leading the push for progressive tax policies. These and other bold campaigns have helped restore public support for labor as unions become a transformational force for justice in our communities.
The Invest in San Diego Families approach to negotiations with the County echoes the conclusions of that meeting.
Show Me the Money
It’s not like the County government lacks for funds. Despite going through a serious recession, they’ve been building an oversized cash reserve, even as needed services have gone unfunded.
As the Center on Policy Initiatives’ Kyra Greene pointed out in a 2016 memo:
The [County’s] unrestricted general fund balance is equal to 46% of general fund expenditures for FY 2015 ($3,486,256,000).
- Between FY 2007 and FY 2015, a time period that encompasses the most significant financial crisis since the Great Depression, the general fund (ending) balance grew by an average of $92 million ($91,662,000) per year. In each of the past five fiscal years (ending balance of FY 2011 through FY 2015), the general fund (ending) balance was an average of $134 million ($133,654,000) greater than the year before. As such, absent any significant decrease in revenue, the County could reasonably increase budgeted expenditures by $134 million dollars per year, while remaining on solid financial footing.In order to meet generally accepted accounting principles (GAAP) for reserves the County needs to keep 15-17% of expenditures on hand requiring a minimum balance of $523 million (522,938,400)
- This means the County could spend nearly $1 billion of the existing unrestricted general fund balance for one-time expenditures maintaining a very healthy general fund balance.
As the impact of term limits approaches for the County Board of Supervisors, coalitions like Invest in San Diego Families offer the opportunity to shape the future direction and the vision for the county.
As easy as it is to get caught up in the very real national dramas of the Trump era, it’s important to remember real progressive change starts at the local level. A simple matter like labor negotiations can have a big impact down the road.
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