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Oakland city workers to vote on strike

While library cuts and management perks dominate headlines about Oakland’s budget, the vast majority of city spending is currently being negotiated behind closed doors: employee compensation. City staff, who have been working without a contract since the summer, have complained to their ally Mayor Dellums as well as to the Council and the public that talks aren’t going well for them. Last week, the largest city employees’ union* turned up the heat by setting a strike authorization vote for October 14th.

To set the stage, a union organizer penned an op-ed for BeyondChron, asking for a “bailout for the needy of Oakland” – the coddled city workforce. The piece highlights the union’s strongest complaint, that librarians do not have adequate security, but largely focuses on outside vendors that city and Port workers blame for cost-cutting pressures. The mainstream media, which has totally ignored the labor strife that threatens to consume City Hall, is helping the unions by focusing on management travel perks that are small potatoes compared to the legions of city workers who are overpaid by many measures.

Though the union has repeatedly offered to help the city find efficiencies, many City Hall watchers blame the union itself for much of Oakland’s inefficiency. After all, front-line workers are often rude to citizens, and overall the city workforce is clearly underperforming. The unions oppose productivity measures such as a 311 system or GPS on city-owned vehicles. Union support helped secure reelection for Councilmembers who reward the unions with lax oversight. Most damagingly, Oakland’s combination of labor and civil service rules make it impossible to manage employees who can be neither fired nor transferred even for egregiously bad job performance.

From at least one perspective, the autonomy given to city staff has been abused. Union organizers who are also city employees, like IFTE 21’s Jeff Levin, appear to be attending to union business on the city’s time. City staff serving policymaking bodies often ignore and thwart the commissioners they are supposed to serve. The performance of city staff during the Downtown Zoning Update is deplorable: from repeatedly providing false and misleading information to outright refusing to follow Commission direction that conflicts with their recommendations, city staff is playing the role of policymaker rather than policy staff. Because they are not accountable to the commissions they serve or really to anyone at all, they can engage in unprofessional behavior without consequences.

The unions have already engaged in hardball tactics, including at least one “sick out” that nobody noticed (and participants were paid during their absence). The unions are in a bad position in negotiations not only because they are clearly overpaid and the city simply cannot afford them, but also because their job performance is so poor that the public doesn’t notice when they leave their posts. That conclusion may be put the test if city workers vote to strike next Tuesday.


*The city does not have detailed information or current contact information about union representation even on its internal website. However, SEIU 1021 is certainly the most visible union and appears to be the biggest.

Posted in budget, california, citycouncil, cityworkers, dellums, oakland.

6 Responses

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  1. J-man'sDad says

    Careful with your generalized union bashing. I know of at least 1 employee group that has an over 80% approval rate with the citizens, a membership that volunteers within the community on their days off, and pays back 13% of their pay, at least 7% more than any other union, back to the city to help pay for their benifits.

  2. Carlos Plazola says

    Local 21 has historically acted responsibly in balancing the needs of their members with the needs of the Oakland residents that need services and pay taxes for them.

    Local 1021 stopped acting responsibly long ago, having forgotten that to they have a responsibility not only to their members, but to the residents of Oakland; to deliver good services, while sharing in the pain of declining city revenues in order to continue to deliver good services to their other constituency: the Oakland residents.

    Yes, council should cut back its budget, as should every department. Yes, high and mid level management should be thinned out. Yes, perks should be cut. And all this will happen.

    But, as you point out, the real fight will be with Local 1021, which will fight any and all cuts and layoffs. They always do.

  3. John says

    Since this thread is more about the City union, this question may not be exactly appropriate, but the topic came up.

    That is, can you provide some clarification and detail regarding the comment, “The performance of city staff during the Downtown Zoning Update is deplorable: from repeatedly providing false and misleading information to outright refusing to follow Commission direction that conflicts with their recommendations, city staff is playing the role of policymaker rather than policy staff.”

    I ask because staff is in a tough position as they get pressure from all sides. Staff also is often given ambiguous or unclear direction from the commission, yet asked to return detailed reports and recommendations on that unclear direction.

    Which zoning meeting and what information was false and misleading?

  4. dto510 says

    If you follow the links above, you’ll see that I’m referring to the two instances where staff presented utterly incorrect information about existing building heights. Since staff’s height proposals were based on existing heights, it was odd that staff neglected to raise their proposed height limits after it was pointed out to them that they were off by up to a hundred feet.

    In addition, during the walking tour, staff used the unfinished Jackson Courtyard project as an example of the downturn in the housing market, when in fact the project had suffered crippling construction defects two years ago. At the second ZUC meeting, staff refused to follow clear committee direction to prepare an option with fewer than six different height areas. And at the joint LPAC/ZUC meeting Monday, staff made rude faces while I was speaking.

    I understand staff’s job is difficult and that’s one reason why I’m not using their names here, so only those who are already observing this behavior, and presumably already have some opinion about it, will know what I’m talking about. But receiving intense pressure from many different folks concerned about their work is no excuse for using incorrect information and not following commission direction. For other examples of city staff, unaccountable to the commissions they serve, refusing to follow direction, see the first link in the paragraph you quoted.

  5. John says

    Okay, thanks for your reply. Yeah, I’m not sure why there is the on-going discrepancy about the existing building heights. I don’t know that the direction from the ZUC was so clear about preparing an option with fewer zones. I say this because during the same meeting, one of the commissioners asked staff to divide the Lake Merritt edge into two zones with the dividing line at One Lakeside Dr., the Essex, creating another zone, in essence.

    In any case, it looks like the rezoning is moving in the direction of Fine Grain zoning, which is one of the key recommendations coming from the LPAB. This will definitely impact the ZUC’s interest in fewer zones since Fine Grain zoning, if implemented, would create small areas of differing building heights within the six (or seven) larger zones the ZUC has published. Fine grain zoning can designate a single block with more than one height designation, both of which might be different from current ZUC designations. That is, it could limit tall buildings in such a way as to not allow more than two on one block or not within x-number of feet of each other. We’ll have to wait and see how the ZUC deals with the Fine Grain approach.

    No comment on the rude faces… ;

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