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San José’s Looming City Worker Strike Would Be Largest in 42 Years

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A large modern building beside an open courtyard.
City Hall in San José on Tuesday, Aug. 1, 2023. (Juliana Yamada/KQED)

Thousands of San José city employees voted to strike next week, union leaders announced Monday, moving the city closer to a historic work stoppage over municipal employee pay.

In an overwhelming vote, workers in four bargaining units represented by unions MEF-AFSCME Local 101 and IFPTE Local 21 authorized a three-day strike beginning Aug. 15. The move ratchets up the pressure on union leaders and the City Council to avoid a work stoppage that could limit service at libraries, community centers and even San José Mineta International Airport.

“Striking is a last resort,” said Kyle Wong, a transportation specialist. “Our hope is that city councilmembers and Mayor Mahan will finally listen to us and address the understaffing crises impacting libraries, the airport, affordable housing, response times and more.”


Mayor Matt Mahan and officials in the City Manager’s office, which leads negotiations with employee unions, counter that San José’s vacancy rate is in line with cities like Oakland and Fremont — and that the city can’t afford the wage increases that workers demand.

The latest public ask from the bargaining units, which represent roughly 4,500 employees, amounts to a 7% wage increase in the current fiscal year and raises of 6% and 5% in the following two years. The city offered a 5% pay bump, followed by 4% and 3% increases.

David Nerhood, a financial analyst with the Department of Transportation, said colleagues can often find better pay in neighboring cities for jobs with the same or lighter workload.

“San José has become what we call a training ground,” Nerhood said. “What inevitably happens is we train people in doing whatever they’re doing for this particular city, and it’s great training … it’s complicated work and we’re not getting benefits or pay commensurate with these other positions.”

Last week, the City Council returned from summer recess earlier than expected to hear an update on the negotiations from City Manager Jennifer Maguire, who has led bargaining with the unions.

Mahan said San José is constrained by its tax base, which is smaller on a per-capita basis than most neighboring cities. A 7% wage increase in the current fiscal year would require changes to the budget passed by the council in June, Mahan told KQED.

“If any of my colleagues want to go higher than a 5% raise in this fiscal year, they’re going to have to point in the budget to what they want to cut,” Mahan said.

The mayor left the door open to one-time bonuses or higher raises for union members tied to the city’s revenue in 2024–25 and 2025–26.

“In years two and three, if our revenue comes in higher than expected, I think it would be appropriate for us to have a modest increase that’s automatically triggered if there’s more money,” Mahan said.

On Tuesday, the council could authorize the city manager to increase or amend the city’s offer. Attorneys working for the city estimate that the cost of a 1% wage increase to the four bargaining units is $3.56 million.

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“It’s my hope that the offer does increase,” said Councilmember Peter Ortiz. “It’s my hope that we are able to provide staff members here at the city of San José a wage increase and a contract that honors their commitment to the residents.”

If no agreement is reached, the unions have scheduled the strike to begin on Tuesday, Aug. 15 at 6 a.m. and last until Friday, Aug. 18 at 5:59 a.m., with picket lines planned for City Hall, the airport and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

The work stoppage would be the city’s largest since 1981 when AFSCME workers hit the picket lines for nine days to advocate for equal pay for women workers.

Union leaders say striking workers could result in flight delays, building permit holdups and the cancellation of city summer camps for kids.

The City Manager’s office has acknowledged that service interruptions could be felt at libraries and community centers, but cautioned that the strike impact would depend on the number of workers participating.

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