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What San José Residents Can Expect if City Workers Go on Strike

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A domed building behind four flags on poles.
Flags at City Hall in San José on Aug. 1, 2023. Members of several city employee unions will be voting on whether to authorize a strike. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

This story contains a correction.

Over 4,000 San José city workers are preparing to go on strike tomorrow morning, after months-long negotiations between the employee unions and the city have failed to reach an agreement.

A strike could have massive implications for residents of the Bay Area’s largest city. Here’s a look at the impasse and which city agencies will be the most affected.

When could a strike take place?

A strike is planned to start on Tuesday, Aug. 15 at 6 a.m. and last for three days.


How long could a strike last?

The unions are proposing an initial strike that would last three days.

But, John Tucker, representative for MEF-AFSCME Local 101, one of the unions bargaining with the city, said they would be prepared to strike for longer if necessary.

“Should we have to talk about a further strike afterwards, we’re willing to do so,” said Tucker, but he believes three days should be enough for the unions to show officials how serious they are about their demands.

How could the strike affect city services?

With workers potentially walking off the job in so many departments, both union and city officials expect disruptions to take place.

Tucker predicted the suspension of city-run summer recreation programs for kids, delays in permit applications for building and renovations and flight delays at San José International Airport as workers hit the picket lines.

“We have operations specialists who really kind of handle a lot of the day to day operations of the airport, from perimeter security to [responding to] issues at different gates,” Tucker added.

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San José’s deputy city manager Kip Harkness says it is impossible to predict the strike’s impact with full certainty without knowing how many workers will follow through.

“It all depends on who will show up, but we’d look to libraries and community centers as ones that might be affected,” he said.

Harkness added that each of the city departments that could be affected by a work stoppage has a contingency plan to continue services, either with existing employees or contractors.

Would my garbage and recycling still be collected?

Yes. The city has existing agreements with four contractors who collect garbage, recycling and yard trimmings from businesses, homes and apartments in the city. Those agreements all run through 2036 and the collections are not affected by a MEF-AFSCME/IFPTE strike.

What about emergency services like fire and police?

Emergency services such as police and fire will not be affected by the strike. In California, police officers and firefighters are prohibited from striking, and the unions representing police and fire in San José have existing contracts with the city. However, MEF-AFSCME does represent public safety dispatchers; but Tucker acknowledged that those workers are likely to be deemed “essential” and excluded from any work stoppage.

Which workers are negotiating a new contract?

Workers with four bargaining units have been in negotiations with the city. The largest is Municipal Employees’ Federation (MEF)-AFSCME Local 101, which represents thousands of employees, including librarians, city planners and code inspectors.

Three other bargaining units, representing workers such as architects, building maintenance supervisors, park managers and wastewater operators, are negotiating under their umbrella union, the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21.

What are the latest proposals from each side?

The unions’ latest offer asks for a 7% pay hike in the fiscal year that began on July 1, with raises of 6% in fiscal year 2024–25 and 5% for 2025–26.

Workers are also pushing for increased paid family leave and other benefits. They say their demands are needed in order to reverse what they call a staffing and retention crisis at the city. City officials point out that the vacancy rate is similar to cities such as Oakland and Fremont — and that it has remained around 12% for the last half-decade despite a growing workforce.

The city’s last offer would provide wage increases of 5% in the current fiscal year, with increases of 4% and 3% in the following years.

What are both sides saying about the impasse?

City employees interviewed by KQED complain that their teams are chronically understaffed, resulting in unrealistic workloads and burnout. They say the city has turned into a launching pad for employees to build their skills before moving on to neighboring local governments that offer higher wages and better benefits.

“I’m looking forward to voting for a strike because things have not been getting better within the city,” said Michael Jun, who works on residential development in the city’s housing department. “It’s really [that] we’ve been asked to do more with less for a long time now, so this is a real last resort.”

More on the Strike

But the city manager’s office, which is conducting the negotiations with direction from the City Council, argues higher wage increases and corresponding pension contributions will outstretch the city’s financial resources.

“We need to come to an agreement that’s fair for the workers, but that we can also afford as a city and as taxpayers,” said Harkness, the deputy city manager.

San José has not seen a strike by city employees since 2007, when fewer than a hundred city inspectors walked off the job for nearly two weeks.

A much larger action by AFSCME Local 101 took place in the summer of 1981, when hundreds of San José workers went on strike for nine days to push for equal pay for female employees who did comparable jobs to their male colleagues. It was the first municipal strike over equal pay in U.S. history.

While the work stoppage struggled to compete for local headlines with the MedFly outbreak in the Santa Clara Valley, it drew national attention — Mayor Janet Gray Hayes and union leaders even flew to New York to discuss the impasse on “Good Morning America.”

In The Mercury News, the late Phil Trounstine described a tense standoff, “marked by angry confrontations between workers and the city council and by the threatened firing of 400 employees.” On July 15, 1981, the strike came to an end, with the city and union agreeing to a compromise that set aside $1.4 million over two years to increase pay for positions historically held by female employees.

CORRECTION – Aug. 2: An earlier version of this story stated leadership of the unions involved in negotiations would tally the strike vote on Aug. 7. This story has been corrected to reflect that the strike vote tally will be completed by Aug. 7 and union leadership will announce the results on that date.


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