Strikers take to streets
More than 500 workers represented by Lane County government’s largest labor union went on strike Wednesday, with an extended walkout possible as the county and union remained far apart on contract terms and negotiations weren’t scheduled to resume until Friday.
Striking American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees formed picket lines outside county buildings Wednesday morning, marking the first formal work stoppage at the county in 38 years.
Employees held signs and chanted slogans outside the county’s Health and Human Services office at West Seventh Avenue and Charnelton Street, the Lane County Public Service Building on East Eighth Avenue, Lane County Public Works on North Delta Highway, and other county sites, demanding better wage and health insurance terms than the county has offered in contract talks.
In north Eugene, about 30 employees and supporters on the street outside the public works building heard frequent honks of support from passing motorists. With canopies and folding chairs, pickets seemed ready for the long haul, saying they plan to return every day until the strike ends.
“There’s a lot of resolve (among county workers). People are fired up,” said Bill Wilcox, an electrical engineer, who said he was not speaking for the union. “I really don’t have a good feeling about this ending quickly.”
In response to the strike, numerous county offices cut operating hours. Health services, including counseling appointments and immunizations, were canceled and several county-run health centers closed.
Most of the 692 Lane County AFSCME-represented employees joined in the strike Wednesday. The county said 118 unionized employees had reported to work as of Wednesday afternoon.
AFSCME and its nurses unit employees represent nearly half of the county’s roughly 1,400 employees. The employee walkout is the first organized strike of county employees since more than 700 AFSCME-represented workers went on strike in 1979.
Negotiating session fails
Earlier Wednesday, county administrators and leaders of AFSCME Local 2831 failed to resolve their differences on wages and benefits following last-minute, overnight negotiations through a state mediator. The county and union have been negotiating since March on a new three-year contract but are more than $20 million apart on employee compensation costs, based on the most recent publicly released offers.
The county has offered pay raises of about 3 percent on average in the contract’s first year. The county also wants employees to start paying $20 to $70 per month toward their health insurance coverage premiums; they now pay nothing.
AFSCME wants higher raises, averaging 14.8 percent for general unit employees in the contract’s first year and 19.8 percent for the smaller nurses unit. It rejects the county proposal to contribute to health insurance plans, noting that some nonunion county employees don’t contribute to their health plans.Wilcox, the public works employee, said he would be willing to pay part of his health insurance premium, but only if his salary is brought up to par with comparable Oregon counties. “I’m not willing to accept a net loss” in compensation, he said. “There’s a misconception that (public employees) all make a lot of money and all have huge retirement packages. I think if people looked at the actual numbers they’d see that’s not the case.”
Jennie Guyan, who works as an administrative assistant for the county’s health department, said the strike will hurt low-income residents who need medical and dental care, restaurants that need licenses, taxpayers with questions about their new property tax statements, and people waiting for building permits, among others. “We want this resolved so we can go back to work and serving the community,” she said.
Striking employees won’t be paid for any days they miss, Guyan said, though the union has created a hardship fund to compensate financially strapped workers.
AFSCME-represented workers who cross the picket line to work will not face any penalties from the union, Guyan said. “But relationships may break down,” she said.
Striking employees stand to lose health insurance benefits Nov. 1 if they haven’t returned to work by then. “We certainly hope they don’t try to wait us out that long,” Guyan said.
The strike was poised to continue through the workweek, with the sides not scheduled to meet again until Friday.
Entering “new territory”
County officials said they were focused on minimizing the strike’s impact on the public. “Being the first day of the strike, this is new territory for a lot of people,” county spokeswoman Devon Ashbridge said. “It’s an all-hands-on-deck situation.”
With workers on strike, county managers implemented plans to suspend numerous health programs, close community health centers and cut operating hours at different county offices.
Lane County District Attorney Patty Perlow on Wednesday said all divisions of her office remain open to the public, although a slowdown of some work related to criminal cases is expected. Clerical staff and victim advocates in the DA’s office are represented by AFSCME. “We value them and the work they do very highly,” Perlow said.
The office notified the local defense bar to expect some delays in receiving police reports and other evidence from prosecutors, Perlow said. There also will be delays in the filing of charges against defendants who are not in custody, as well as some “triaging of filings” in court cases, Perlow said.
“Hopefully, the strike will end quickly,” she said. “But we’ve had plenty of time to plan how we will operate, and we can sustain at this level for the time being.”
Discussions to continue
The union and county met in mediation from 9 a.m. Monday until 1 a.m. Tuesday and again from 2 p.m. Tuesday to about 7 a.m. Wednesday. Representatives on both sides said they’ve offered concessions but declined to provide details.
AFSCME officials accused the county of ending talks Wednesday morning despite their wish to keep going. “We’re willing to continue to negotiate, but, at this time, they have walked from the table,” AFSCME Local 2831 President LaRece Rivera said.
Ashbridge said no one walked away. “We were unable to reach an agreement, but we will be going back (to the bargaining table),” she said. “The idea that we have walked away from the negotiations and are not longer interested in coming to an agreement is false.”
Ashbridge said the county made the union a better offer at 10 p.m. Tuesday, but received a counteroffer that “was beyond the financial means of the county.”
Union negotiators said their bargaining team offered concessions and exchanged ideas throughout the night to try to reach an agreement. “We moved way to their side,” AFSCME Local 2831 representative Jim Steiner said. “They did give us (an offer), but we don’t consider it moving toward a compromise.”
The county will impose contract terms on the union starting Saturday, after commissioners gave County Administrator Steve Mokrohisky authority to implement a new contract. The move doesn’t prevent the sides from trying to reach an agreement.
Follow Elon Glucklich on Twitter @EGlucklich . Email firstname.lastname@example.org . Reporters Saul Hubbard and Jack Moran contributed to this story.