Friday, May 25 , 2018, 4:14 am | A Few Clouds 51º

 
 
 
 

Local News

Green Wields a Deft Hand in Art of Negotiation

SEIU Local 620 official George Green bucks economic headwinds in Santa Barbara city salary deal

George Green, Santa Barbara field representative for the SEIU International Local 620, was at the helm of a bargaining team that convinced the Santa Barbara City Council to agree to a 2.5 percent pay hike for city employees this year and another 1.5 percent next year. The council voted 6-0 to approve the package, despite a moribund city budget and ever-increasing taxpayer unrest.

So, why isn’t Green all smiles? Perhaps because that’s only half the story of the negotiations that began in early February.

“People see pay hikes during a recession and they automatically want to villainize the unions,” said Green, who has been with Local 620 for 16 years. “But the fact that not many people hear or see is that we are actually giving the city $1.5 million in salary savings throughout the fiscal year.”

The savings to which Green is referring come from the concession by nearly 400 city employees who agreed to give up 104 furlough hours each — roughly 13 full days of pay apiece — to save the jobs of around 20 fellow union members. Over the course of the fiscal year, which started July 1, those sacrificed furlough hours will translate into 5 percent of salary. Therefore, in the long term, the city is actually saving a net of 2.5 percent of salary.

Green and his bargaining team worked closely with city finance director Bob Peirson to come up with this agreement, which Green says was not as one-sided as some may have been led to believe.

“Nobody was completely happy, but that’s how negotiations are supposed to work,” said Green. “At the end of the day, I feel good about the fact that 20 union employees aren’t out there in this economy looking for a job.”

Councilwoman Helene Schneider, a mayoral candidate in the Nov. 3 election, agrees with Green’s assessment that the negotiations were mutually beneficial.

“It’s never a zero-sum game,” she said. “All we can do is try to make the negotiations fair and equitable for all parties involved, and I think that was accomplished.”

Councilman Dale Francisco has a much different recollection of the negotiations. He was the lone council member to vote against the initial pay increase, which passed by a 6-1 vote in February.

“When the City Council originally granted the 2.5 percent raise, there was absolutely no agreement in place about city employees giving up furlough hours,” said Francisco, who announced his candidacy for last month. “By February, it was crystal clear that the economy was rapidly accelerating downward, and to my mind, by granting the pay hike, we were essentially setting ourselves up for failure.”

According to Francisco, it wasn’t until after the pay increase had been implemented that the 20 or so city employees received layoff notices. Subsequently, Green and the SEIU came back to the negotiating table to eventually work out the deal whereby furlough hours were given up to keep those jobs. Francisco believes this second set of negotiations might have been avoided altogether, had the abysmal city budget not been strained further by an unnecessary and ill-timed pay hike.

However, Schneider believes the SEIU deserves credit for continuing to work with the council to solve the city’s budgetary problems. According to Schneider, when the City Council convened to hammer out the budget this year, the SEIU was the only organization that voluntarily came to the bargaining table.

The SEIU is in the middle of another negotiation to try to save the jobs of 15 Santa Barbara County employees who recently received layoff notices. Green and company are beginning to feel the pressure as California’s fiscal situation worsens, and cutbacks continue to pile up.

“We can’t just keep giving up salary to keep jobs,” said a frustrated Green. “That can only go on so long.

“At some point, the Republicans in California need to wake up and realize that the only way to increase revenue is to increase taxes ... not on working-class people, but on the rich.”

Convincing a super-majority of people that raising taxes in this economy is a good idea is going to be a tough sell for Green, however. In Santa Barbara, the decision would come down to voters, not the City Council, and since it’s too late to place an initiative on the November ballot, it wouldn’t be until next year that the city could even consider a tax increase.

Mayoral candidate Steve Cushman, president of the Santa Barbara Region Chamber of Commerce, has his own view of what it will take to turn the economy around.

“Salary reductions and layoffs have been needed to ensure business survival,” Cushman said. “Of course, it is painful. We are all feeling the pain.

What angers private-sector employers and employees is the demand for higher taxes,” he continued. “The seeming disregard for what we are all facing.”

So what is the answer? According to Cushman, a massive collaborative effort on the part of the public sector is required.

“With a temporary 15 percent pay cut for all public-sector employees, maybe skewed higher for higher-paid employees, everyone could keep their jobs, and the public wouldn’t feel deprived of services or taken advantage of by the very well-compensated public employees,” he said.

Mayor Marty Blum echoes the unfortunate necessity for painful layoffs.

“I think the residents of Santa Barbara are aware of the good work the city employees do every day,” said Blum, who is barred by term limits from seeing re-election. “But there will have to be some cutbacks unless we can get this economy to turn around.”

Still, Green will continue to fight to keep the jobs of all 2,500 union employees represented by SEIU Local 620 on the Central Coast — and to get them the best deal possible. In the meantime, his hope is that some drastic changes will take place in California’s overall mindset on tax concessions.

“We’ve been giving the rich tax breaks for the last 10 years, and look where we are; we’ve been giving corporations tax breaks for the last 10 years, and look where we are,” lamented Green. “We’re in a rat hole.”

— Kevin McFadden is a Noozhawk contributor.

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