COVID-19LaborMilitant Journalism

Santa Cruz County workers force county to reach tentative agreement, avoiding ULP strike

On Jan. 25, 1,600 Service Employees International Union Local 521 essential workers avoided an Unfair Labor Practice strike by bringing Santa Cruz County to reach a tentative agreement. The tentative agreement includes important wins including across-the-board wage increases of 9% over three years, $1,250 pandemic/hazard pay bonuses, the Juneteenth holiday, language around staff turnover and more. 

SEIU 521 workers in Santa Cruz County include child support specialists, public health nurses, social workers, and other frontline workers who work closely with working class communities in the county. Veronica Velasquez, a social worker and the Santa Cruz President of SEIU local 521 stated, “We strongly believe this agreement is an important step towards meeting the critical recovery needs of our community and workers” (SEIU 521).

After nearly eight months of negotiations, on Jan. 18, SEIU 521 workers announced that they would not be accepting the County’s “Last, Best, and Final Offer” and 93% of the members voted in approval of an Unfair Labor Practice strike starting on Jan. 25 in order “to reach a fair and just deal that addresses the challenges facing county workers.” (SEIU 521 Press Release)

Amy Meza, a public health nurse, stated, “As professionals, we are committed to keeping our residents safe and protected from infectious diseases like COVID-19, but also from the County Board’s unwillingness to hear workers and fix their broken funding and hiring systems. We have no choice, but to go on strike to protect our community recovery.” (SEIU 521 Press Release)

Workers fighting for better pay, lower turnover, filling vacancies and funding social services

The recent Omicron surge brought 2,806 new cases to Santa Cruz County just on Jan. 24. (New York Times) In their contract fight, SEIU 521 workers recognized as a key issue the county’s failure in combating the COVID-19 crisis due to underfunding public services and the workers who run them.

Additionally, the job vacancy rate being at a high of 20% reflects that the county’s conditions of employment are not meeting the needs of workers. In addition, the turnover rate is shockingly high at 87% for workers who volunteer to leave their job. As a result, understaffing during the Omicron surge, alongside the county’s failure to invest in the community, created more difficulties for the SEIU 521 workers. But as the union noted, there is not a lack of funding in the county budget; the county has “$53 million in reserves, and $14.3 million more in the general fund than projected,” meanwhile “the board refuses to address long-term community health and social issues.” (SEIU 521 Press Release)

Some of the social issues that the union cited include the county’s defunding of its clinics to the tune of $4 million,  which has made health services less accessible to working-class families in the middle of a pandemic. Additionally, the number of seniors (65+) in poverty increased over the last decade, and Santa Cruz County’s poverty rate is above the state average, at 17%. Another example of Santa Cruz County refusing to address and fund socio-economic issues is that 46.9% of families in Santa Cruz County live below the self-sufficiency standard, which is a calculation of the ability of people to take care of their basic needs. 

A public health nurse and SEIU 521 member, Katie Williams, pointed out, “The top County executive Carlos Palacios is being paid more than four times the median salary of a County employee ($313,569.86 in 2020). There is no doubt the Supervisors’ priorities are upside down.” (SEIU 521 Press Release)

The disparities regarding what top executives make in the county compared to the SEIU 521 members goes to show that in the capitalist system there is enough money, but it is used to make the rich richer, instead of funding the county workers who run social services for the working-class community and need to be able to meet their basic needs.

Not only does Santa Cruz County not fund its workers and the social services that are desperately needed by the community, in addition the county tried to paint the SEIU 521 workers striking as hurting the community. The Santa Cruz County spokesperson, Jason Hopin, said to the press: “Unfortunately, it is those members of our community who depend on county services and staff — from public health workers to benefits representatives to road repair crews — who will bear the brunt of this decision.” (Good Times) If the county truly cared about the well-being of its community, they could fund the essential workers and services for the well-being of the community.

Although Santa Cruz County was attempting to pit community members against the SEIU 521 workers, the workers made it clear: They were fighting for the county to invest in the very same community that they live and work in.

A public health nurse and SEIU 521 member on the bargaining team, Alma Ruiz, emphasized the importance of these negotiations to fight for better pay because some of the Santa Cruz County workers are having to “decide between paying rent and buying food.” (Good Times) Not only are workers struggling to pay their bills and put food on the table for their families, but the county also has not filled a number of vacant positions, which puts an increased burden on understaffed and overworked SEIU 521 workers. This new tentative agreement increases workers’ pay by 3% every year for the next three years and will help lessen this issue. This victory has shown SEIU 521 workers and the Santa Cruz community that putting pressure on the county to win better working conditions, wages and public services is possible when workers collectively organize and threaten to withhold their labor.

The Tentative Agreement will be voted on by SEIU 521 members in the next week. If the workers vote in support of the TA, then it will go to the County Board of Supervisors to be ratified. If you’d like to follow this struggle, stay up to date with the SEIU 521 workers here.

Featured photo: @SEIU instagram

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