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[whitespace] City approves SEA contract

Officials say dispute wasted time, effort

Sunnyvale--Sunnyvale City Council on March 28 approved a five-year contract between the city and its largest union, the Sunnyvale Employees' Association. The action ended a months-long struggle between city management and labor. The sides had been without a contract since June 30, 1999.

Voting unanimously and without comment, council gave a muted end to an emotional dispute. In December, at the struggle's most public moment, more than a hundred union members, chanting and carrying signs, staged a street corner protest at El Camino and Mathilda Avenue.

Mayor Pat Vorreiter said the quiet ending reflected council's desire to put the matter to rest and focus on the future.

"It was a painful process," she said. "We didn't really want to have any further discussion. We're just happy its behind us."

From the outset, both sides agreed Sunnyvale workers were underpaid. But opinions on the proper solution varied. Negotiations stalled last summer because of the disputed benchmark cities used to determine salaries. The city's original proposal would have raised Sunnyvale salaries to the average set by a survey of ten cities, increasing them to 1.75 percent above that average in the contract's fifth year.

Union officials, however, objected to the inclusion of cities like Hayward, Richmond, and Alameda in the survey, feeling that those cities were included only to decrease the salary average.

"Those cities are in there solely to keep salaries low," SEA President Ben Gikis said. "They have no relevance to Sunnyvale or Silicon Valley."

The union hoped to drop the five lowest paid cities by the end of the fifth year and be paid based on averages from the remaining Silicon Valley cities: Fremont, Santa Clara, Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Milpitas.

The city maintained that all 10 cities were comparable in size and service and drew from the same labor market.

A disagreement on the wealth of the city formed the dispute's background. The union saw the city as having vast resources. The city maintained that any would have resulted in services being cut.

The sides made no progress on the matter until after arbitration in February.

As a compromise, the city agreed to drop the lowest city in the final three years. The deductions will not accumulate. Each of the contract's last three years, the survey will incorporate all 10 cities, before the lowest is determined and dropped, Nieto said.

The city also agreed to increase the salary percentage above the average that would have been paid. In the final year of the original contract offer, employees would have recieved 1.75 percent over the average. In the ratified final contract, stipulations call for a 2 percent above average increase. The contract is retroactive to August, six weeks after the last contract lapsed.

However, because an accounting error that affected the level of salaries of one of the benchmark cities was amended in the later one, the amount of money on the table remains essentially the same, Nieto said. Despite this, Nieto said he does not think the contract represents a victory for the city.

"We wasted almost an entire year in impasse, mediation, and arbitration," he said. "In my opinion, I think it was a gigantic waste of time and effort."

Finance director Mary Bradley echoed Nieto comments that the new contract was not substantially different from the one on the table last year.

"I think the contact is very fair," she said. "It's pretty much the same as the proposal in June."

Gikis said he felt positively about the result, especially with the contract's stipulation that the lowest average city salaries be dropped from the salary equation.

"We're happy its done," he said. "We're fairly pleased with years three, four, and five in terms of money."
Sam Scott

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