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San José City Workers One Step Closer to Walking Off Job

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Workers holding signs demonstrate in front of a large building complext.
San José city workers, represented by two unions, rally in front of City Hall in mid-June, demanding wage increases and other benefits. (Courtesy of MEF-AFSCME Local 101)

More than 4,000 San José city workers are one step closer to walking off the job after mediated contract negotiations with the city broke down last week.

“There are no other legal steps that need to be met. The next step is authorizing a strike vote,” said John Tucker, a union representative for the Municipal Employees’ Federation (MEF-AFSCME) Local 101, one of the two unions that has been negotiating with the city since mid-March. “We’re looking at taking that vote later on this month for a potential strike to occur in early August.”

The unions are demanding significant wage increases over the next three years, including a 7% pay bump in the next fiscal year, as well as eight weeks of paid family leave and other benefits. Such increases, they argue, are necessary to address the city’s ongoing staffing and retention crisis. As of May, the city reported 860 job vacancies, a rate of more than 13%.

The city’s most recent offer falls far short of those demands, organizers said.

More than 1,500 union members have so far signed a petition in support of a strike, and organizers have begun educating workers on their legal rights.

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A strike could hamstring basic services in the city.

“Whether it’s our parks and recreation system, our libraries or day-to-day operations of the city … these are the workers that do all that,” said Jean Cohen, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council.

Shelsy Bass, a development officer with the city’s housing department, and a member of the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21 — the other union involved in negotiations with the city, which represents three individual union chapters — said San José is considered a “training ground” for other municipalities.

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“I’ve lost coworkers to [Santa Clara] County or other cities, and it always comes down to, ‘I can go there and I can make more money and I don’t do as much work,’” she said.

Bass said her team, which approves affordable housing projects in the city, is consistently understaffed, and turnover remains high.

“We’re [each] doing one-and-a-half if not two jobs” she said. “In the past six months, we closed four new construction deals, and it was extremely difficult. We had people who felt extremely burnt out afterwards.”

Bass said such high rates of turnover leaves a dearth of historical knowledge on her team.

“It feels like we’re reinventing the wheel every once in a while,” she said. “Not having someone who’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, you do it this way,’ because that person just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Tucker, from MEF-AFSCME, is now calling on the City Council to return early from its July recess for an emergency closed session to get the city to adjust its latest offer.

His union, he said, offered a “significantly reduced package” to the city last week in an effort to avert a walkout, and says it’s now the city’s turn to respond to that, which the council has to authorize.

“We do want to give them every possibility to come to an agreement. So, we are willing to wait until they’ve had at least their first session back, which is August 8,” Tucker said. “After [that], anything’s on the table.”

But San José Mayor Matt Mahan said an emergency council meeting won’t change much.

“The fact that we’re at an impasse is not something that the council is going to be able to resolve,” Mahan told KQED. “The City Council met a few weeks ago and gave unanimous or near unanimous direction to the city manager to continue with the process that we’re in, which included our last, best and final offer, and then, if necessary, the process of mediation.”

Mahan also said the city made additional concessions during the latest negotiations, including on some non-wage-related demands.

But the unions’ wage-increase demands, he argued, are simply untenable, particularly in light of recent widespread tech layoffs and declining commercial real estate investments, both of which are expected to lower the city’s tax revenue.

“I certainly wouldn’t support us moving closer to 7% wage increase in Year One of this contract because it’s not fair to residents and taxpayers who rely on city services,” Mahan said. “We never want to be in a situation of overpromising, giving larger raises than we can sustain and then being in the terrible position of needing to lay people off and reduce service levels for residents a few years later.”

Meanwhile, Bass, from the housing department, said that while she and her co-workers certainly do not want to go on strike, they’re prepared to do so if the city doesn’t come back with a better offer.

Bass, who commutes to her job from Hayward — which often takes well over an hour in each direction, said she remains committed to working for the city, but is ready to fight for more sustainable conditions.

“I love serving the residents of the city of San José, and I want to continue to do that, so I stay,” she said. “It’s a city that I feel that I can make a huge impact in with the work that we do, and I can’t necessarily do that in a different municipality.”

Correction (July 20): The original version of this story stated the city reported 860 municipal job vacancies as of July 2023. In fact, those figures, while announced by the city in a July press release, represent the number of vacancies as of May 2023.

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