A union divided

Butte County employees consider switching unions to secure better pay, protect benefits

UPEC business manager Christopher Darker addresses Butte County employees currently represented by the Butte County Employees Association.

UPEC business manager Christopher Darker addresses Butte County employees currently represented by the Butte County Employees Association.

Photo By Ken SMith

Some Butte County employees are so upset with their latest contract and compensation that they are considering switching unions to get better representation.

About three dozen employees—some in office wear, some in weather-beaten orange shirts and all fresh from a day’s work—attended an informational meeting at Chico’s Oxford Suites Tuesday (March 12) evening held by the Redding-based United Public Employees of California (UPEC), Local 792, to hear what the organization has to offer employees.

The workers are members of the county’s General Unit and Social Service Worker Unit currently represented by the Butte County Employees Association (BCEA), Local 1. The units include employees working for Public Works, Behavioral Health and other departments.

UPEC Business Manager Christopher Darker and union relations representative Christine Perry reiterated several times that the meeting’s purpose was not to poach the BCEA’s members, but simply to let them know they have options.

“We’re not here to knock our brothers and sisters,” Perry said. “Some of the people here asked to learn about us. This is America; we think competition is healthy, and we came down tonight to share our strengths and introduce ourselves.”

The meeting turned into a good deal more than a meet-and-greet as angry employees shared horror stories about co-workers whose wages qualified them for public assistance and others who hadn’t received raises in more than five years. Some said they work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

At the heart of the debate are last year’s contract negotiations between the county and its employees. In the end, workers were forced to accept a deal that included a 2 percent raise (which workers say isn’t enough to keep up with inflation and cost of living), but cut their employer’s contribution to retirement funds. The employees have also absorbed rising costs of their medical benefits.

One worker, who asked not to be identified, summed up the situation thusly: “We now pay all of our PERS retirement contribution, which is 7 percent of our salary. The county used to pay this as part of our benefits package. We still are required to pay this contribution, but now out of our pockets, which for me and many of my co-staff adds up to about $300 a month less take-home pay than just three years ago.

“We are also paying more for our crappy health-care insurance. We pay more for co-pays, office visits, prescriptions and deductibles.”

While the Social Services Unit and General Unit are represented by BCEA, UPEC is currently the negotiator that represents the Butte County Professional Employees Association (PEA) and the Probation Peace Officers Association (PPOA). In December, the PEA, whose membership includes nurses, scientists and prosecutors, rejected the supervisors’ offer, came to impasse and continued to fight the county. PPOA members took the supervisors’ offer. The UPEC reps touted these separate decisions as evidence of the union’s democratic approach.

“We’re here to research and present you with options, and then you guys vote on everything you want to do, and we’ll make it happen,” Darker said.

At the end of the meeting, several workers took away petitions that would decertify BCEA as their labor representative. Perry said 30 percent of the union members’ signatures are needed to move it to the next level, a confidential poll of all members on whether to stick with the BCEA or move to UPEC. She said the General Unit needs 275 signatures and the Social Service Worker Unit 150, and they must be submitted between April 3 and May 2.

UPEC represents 3,500 workers in 65 separate bargaining units from the Oregon border to Carmel. It is a member of the Laborers International Union of North America and the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO).

This was UPEC’s second meeting in less than a month with BCEA members. The first was held Feb. 25 in Oroville. Perry said employees invited them again to accommodate Chico workers who couldn’t make it to the first meeting.

While BCEA members consider their affiliation, the PEA continues its fight against the supervisors with support from UPEC. After the December impasse, members chose to use one of the tools in the negotiator’s bag-of-tricks: independent fact-finding.

“The fact finding proves that Butte County compensates its professional employees at far lower rates than Sutter, Yuba and Tehama counties, and that we’d continue to fall behind other counties at the rate we’re going,” said PEA President and Deputy District Attorney Jennifer Bennett.

“We have a great group of people who work for the county and really care about the community,” she said. “Most of us live here and have a vested interest in keeping it a safe and healthy place to live. But if we can’t compete with other counties, many of which are smaller than Butte, we’re not going to be able to keep, retain and hire the best people for some of these jobs.

“We didn’t get the same deal as the other unions got because we chose to reject that initial offer. We didn’t feel it was fair considering we aren’t even competitive with surrounding counties, while at the same time there are department heads getting pretty nice salary increases of their own.”