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Will California scientists strike? Union declares impasse over salaries, requests a mediator

Kevin Neri/kneri@sacbee.com

After years of bargaining and several recent labor actions, the union representing California state scientists has taken another step toward what could eventually become the state’s first-ever strike among civil service employees.

The California Association of Professional Scientists on Tuesday asked the state’s Public Employment Relations Board to determine that they had reached an impasse in bargaining with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s administration and, in turn, appoint a third-party mediator to help facilitate negotiations.

PERB now has five days to decide whether it agrees with CAPS that an impasse exists.

“We wish we didn’t have to take this step because we have reached agreement with the State in many areas, but salaries remain an issue,” said Jacqueline Tkac, chair of the CAPS bargaining team, in a statement Tuesday. “After 1,288 days since our last contract expired and 352 hours at the table, after the State has said more than once, ‘the money is the money,’ we think it’s time to take advantage of another tool available to us to reach a contract that values state scientists.”

CAPS has been bargaining with CalHR since the union’s last contract expired on July 1, 2020, and they’ve reached tentative agreements with the state on all but nine of the terms in their contract. But those final terms — which include salary adjustments, health care contributions and pay differentials — are the deal-sealers for union members who say they’re due raises of 30% to 40%.

Such dramatic pay bumps would address what employees say are longtime pay disparities within the scientists’ unit and between their counterparts in engineering positions.

The union, which represents more than 5,000 rank-and-file and managerial-level scientists in state government, rejected an offer from the state in late January.

Can state scientists strike for higher pay?

Earlier this month, CAPS members voted to authorize a strike. But just because impasse is declared doesn’t mean state scientists are walking off the job anytime soon.

The only way for state worker unions to go on strike, barring any unfair labor practices, is to declare impasse and then exhaust a third-party mediator’s effort to facilitate negotiations. Under the Ralph C. Dills Act, state civil service employees work under the terms of their old, expired contracts while new ones are negotiated. The no-strike clauses are still considered active until impasse proceedings have been completed.

One public sector labor law expert says it’s “not uncommon” for public sector unions, including those that represent state civil service workers, to hit an impasse in bargaining. An impasse declaration also doesn’t mean the parties aren’t still trying to meet and resolve the conflict without going to mediation.

“Typically, it’s not too hard to get PERB to agree to an impasse declaration,” said Tim Yeung, a public sector labor expert and managing partner with Sloan Sakai Yeung & Wong.

“When PERB looks at an impasse declaration, they’re there solely to determine whether there’s an impasse — whether future bargaining is going to be futile,” Yeung said. “They’re not there to determine whose position is more reasonable or where the parties should end up.”

If PERB decides that the parties have indeed reached an impasse, then CAPS and the state can either mutually agree on a third-party mediator or have the board appoint one for them. Bargaining would continue with the mediator’s help until an agreement is reached or impasse proceedings fail. Then, and only then, could the state implement its “last, best and final” offer. At that point, the union could also organize a strike, which Yeung points out is the workers’ only real point of leverage.

The last time the state of California imposed its last, best and final offer was during Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s administration after contract talks with the California Correctional Peace Officers Association ended in impasse. The Legislative Analyst’s Office characterized CCPOA and the state’s relationship as “completely dysfunctional.” Yeung authored a blog post in 2010 affirming that the Schwarzenegger administration’s imposition of its offer did not constitute an unfair labor practice.

Yeung doesn’t expect CalHR to give in to union demands for significantly higher raises. As a chief negotiator himself, he said it’s commonplace for management to “really hold the line” and not offer a union much more, even if the membership has rejected tentative agreements in the past.

“If you start giving into that, what’s going to happen is everyone is going to reject tentative agreements thinking that you’re going to give them more money,” he said.

“Bargaining is like this dance, and it goes on for a while,” he added. “Just because they declare impasse, I’m sure, doesn’t mean that they aren’t talking to each other.”