The Electrical Worker online
July 2014

'A Long and Winding Road'
Two-year Effort Brings Bargaining Rights to
Calif. Municipal Workers

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As an equipment mechanic for the Crestline Sanitation District in southern California, Jim Schlichting deals with all kinds of challenges — some small, others large.

"I can fix anything from a vacuum cleaner to a Mack truck," the deep-voiced 63-year-old said. With prior experience doing similar work for the state, Schlichting's 10 years on the job with Crestline has allowed him to hone his maintenance skills while establishing friendships with other techs living and working near the mountainous San Bernardino National Forest two hours east of Los Angeles.

But in 2010, budget shortfalls prompted a referendum vote throughout San Bernardino County to split the sanitation district from the rest of the county's public services. The end result? The district's five-person board of directors would have unilateral say over wages and benefits for Schlichting and his co-workers.

At the time, Schlichting wasn't scared. "We had a memorandum of understanding from the board that basically promised they wouldn't do anything that would affect our pay in a bad way," he said.

It turned out to be a false promise. Wages flatlined. With no cost of living increases, workers soon realized they were lagging behind those at other municipalities in the surrounding region. With prices on mortgages, rent, groceries and gas going up in San Bernardino, Crestline's workers weren't earning enough to keep pace with inflation.

Then, Schlichting said, word spread that the district was planning to slash retirement benefits by as much as 7 percent.

"We all knew we were going to have to make up that cut through our wages," he said.

Frustration gave way to constructive talk among Schlichting and his 15 co-workers.

"We knew what we had to do," he said. "We needed representation. We needed to organize."

So Schlichting started looking for assistance, eventually reaching out to the IBEW after talking to several other unions. "I felt the IBEW was the most businesslike and more professional than the others," he said.

Moving Forward Together

At a June 2012 public meeting of the Crestline board of directors, two visitors showed up and took seats in the front row — IBEW organizers Bob Oedy and Mark Meyer. Members of the board, who had gathered to discuss the district's budget and worker pay, quickly realized the afternoon would be anything but business as usual.

In the days leading up to that meeting, all of Crestline's employees had signed authorization cards in meetings with Oedy and Meyer, who are lead organizers for the International's Professional and Industrial Department in the Ninth District.

With the meeting just getting underway, Oedy raised his hand. "I wanted you to know that we received 100 percent of workers' support for union representation," he told the board.

Schlichting said the organizers' presence at the meeting was to send a simple message. "We wanted voluntary recognition," he said. "All of us had decided that we were going to have a problem with our pay if we didn't move forward together."

Meyer agreed. "It showed that the workers were uniformly committed," he said. "They just wanted a seat at the negotiation table."

The board scuttled the request that day, but later relented and granted recognition to the employees. The workers became new members of Perris Local 1436.

Solidarity had won the day — but it was about to be tested as the IBEW activists and workers prepared for contract negotiations, a grueling process that would span the next 15 months.

'He Walked Right Out of the Meeting'

In February 2013, Meyer, IBEW Ninth District International Representative Kelly Foster and the workers' negotiating committee met with district representatives to begin discussing a first contract.

They had their seat at the table. But they were, in a sense, alone.

"The negotiator for the district wouldn't even sit at the table with us at the beginning," Schlichting said of the labor attorney hired by Crestline. "For the first few talks, he would come in, we would ask questions, then he'd get upset and leave."

Foster, who has helped negotiate numerous contracts in the region, said there was "zero cooperation and no professionalism."

"The first few sessions didn't go so well," she said. "There was no back and forth, and not much movement toward having a fair, equitable negotiation."

But making their case before the district's board of directors had worked to get voluntary recognition, so Meyer and Foster went back to a March meeting to raise concerns.

Addressing the board again, Meyer said, "The Crestline attorney and the general manager would not sit down at the table, didn't really engage in negotiations and ultimately walked right out of the meeting. I believe that this conduct is completely unacceptable and demonstrated a lack of good faith."

Foster told the board that after the IBEW representatives had put forth their proposal, the Crestline attorney said he had no proposal, then deliberately sought to delay negotiations.

"Bargaining in good faith is a requirement of the law that both parties must make a sincere effort to reach an agreement," Foster told the directors. "A mutual obligation to the employer and employees is to negotiate with an open mind. The negotiators at the table must have full authority to reach an agreement. No delay games should occur."

The strategy worked. "After that, they changed out their attorney and brought in someone else," Foster said. "We could get back on track."

But even with an ostensibly more willing partner, Foster and Meyer said problems persisted.

"There was a mountain of paperwork," Meyer said, as the IBEW team combed through the workers' previous memorandum of understanding and studied template language from other similar contracts from area IBEW locals.

And Crestline's side was, according to Foster, deleting items from already-agreed-upon documents without first discussing with the IBEW representatives.

"It was very shady," Foster said. "They kept taking things away and hoping we didn't notice. They got very angry when we pointed out that they weren't following the law. But that's what the IBEW is for. We do workers a disservice if we don't jump in there. We are there to give them the best of negotiations, and make sure bargaining is in good faith."

Gradually, the negotiators were able to secure a tentative agreement last September, before making additional changes that would finally coalesce into a first contract offer for the workforce.

"There were good days and bad days, ups and downs," Foster said. "At times, the workers were ready for things to be over with, but they held in there."

A Unanimous Ratification

Hard work paid off May 15 when the unit unanimously ratified their first agreement. Among the gains were a 2 percent annual cost of living increase; salary increases based on an area survey of similar districts, classifications and job descriptions; improved medical and dental care; and more.

Schlichting said that he hopes that the relationship between the workforce and the district can now continue to be strengthened. "We didn't overstep trying to get what we deserved," he said.

Meyer said that the Crestline effort shows that even when an employer isn't aggressively slashing pay and benefits, workers who find their wages standing still can see themselves sliding further out of the middle class.

"It's not always takeaways that can spell disaster for workers," he said. "Just with changes in your expenses, you can find yourselves slipping."

Foster and Meyer said that the strength and determination from the workers was the guiding force in the campaign.

"Throughout this whole process, they were really unwavering in knowing that without a union, they were moving backward," Meyer said. "They were continually working together, constantly communicating to each other on the ground level."

Now two years after initially reaching out to the IBEW, Schlichting is resting easier, he said.

"It's been a long and winding road, but it feels really good to have this now," he said. "We're all good at our jobs, we were just asking for what we thought was reasonable. In the end, it worked out pretty well for us. I want to thank everyone in the IBEW who helped us through this long and difficult process of attaining a new first contract."


Sixteen employees of Crestline Sanitation District in southern California are the newest members of Perris Local 1436.