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[whitespace] Workers, city reach impasse over contract

Sunnyvale--Sunnyvale's largest city workers union and city management reached impasse in contract negotiations earlier this month when members of the Sunnyvale Employees Association (SEA) rejected the final contract offer from the city and the city refused their counter-proposal.

The SEA and the city have been in contract negotiations since January in an attempt to reach agreement on a new contract that would take effect when their current contract expires June 30. But there have been ongoing differences in how much the city is willing to increase salaries and how much workers say they deserve.

At the crux of the conflict is the discrepancy between Sunnyvale workers' salaries and those of equal positions in surrounding cities. At a City Council meeting at the end of May, four representatives from the SEA appeared before councilmembers to appeal for more money, citing a gap of over 30 percent that exists in some instances between the pay rate of Sunnyvale employees and employees with identical jobs in other cities, according to SEA President Ben Gikis.

Shortly thereafter, City Manager Bob LaSala and Director of Human Resources Dave Nieto agreed that employees' salaries needed to be increased, but said the percentage of increase remained open and debatable.

But according to Gikis, a medium could not be reached in their final negotiating session on June 3.

"We met and went back and forth and back and forth," Gikis said. "And then the city said their offer was final and we made a counter-proposal and they walked out in the middle of it."

That action made the impasse official as well as obvious, Gikis said, and since then both sides have been meeting with an outside arbitrator, who will reach an advisory decision--meaning councilmembers could reject or approve the arbitrator's decision.

Assistant City Manager Amy Chan conducted a session between the two sides after the SEA declared an impasse and would only comment in overall terms.

"I think the main issue is economics," she said.

Gikis said the city is using some East Bay cities to arrive at SEA salaries, which the union membership does not believe accurately reflects the cost of living in Silicon Valley. The SEA represents more than 500 positions in the city, from office assistants to tree planters to city planners.

"We want to be paid at least the average of local cities by the end of five years," Gikis said, pointing to a 95 percent approval rating from Sunnyvale residents in a recent survey. "Quite frankly, this city should be rewarding their employees at least that much."

Gikis said some members of the SEA planned on returning to the June 15 City Council meeting, but decided not to because of a full agenda and a closed meeting for councilmembers regarding the negotiations that took place just prior to that night's meeting.

"We decided to just wait and see what happened," Gikis said.

Instead, he sent councilmembers two letters. One outlined details of the negotiations and requested city staff to negotiate a settlement that would keep workers' salaries at competitive levels, and the other stated that the SEA would prefer to reach an agreement at the bargaining table instead of through the arbitration process.

"But we got all those letters back from them, some opened and some unopened," Gikis said. A letter from Mayor Manuel Valerio accompanied the letters, telling Gikis that his memorandums were "outside the scope of our normal bargaining process."

Chan said the city's negotiating process is structured so the opposing sides in contract negotiation correspond with the designated negotiating teams rather than with other principals, such as councilmembers.

"Apparently Ben sent the letters directly to the council, which bypassed the negotiating teams," Chan said. "And the council was asked not to respond to those because then they wouldn't have been dealing with the teams."

"We're really disappointed because we were really hoping to have this resolved before the end of the month," Gikis said. "There is money in the budget, so it's not a matter of the city going broke."

Gikis said in the meantime, "There are a lot of very unhappy and frustrated people doing their same old good job."
Kelly Wilkinson

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Web extra to the July 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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