Workers say city services are vital to public safety

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OAKLAND, Calif. - City workers gathered in front of City Hall April 2 with a message for City Council members starting to discuss a new two-year budget: Providing services to children and elders, making sure roads are repaired and libraries are open are part of public safety, too.

The safety issue has loomed large here in recent years, with 131 homicides in 2012. At the same time, shrinking revenues have forced cuts in the city's sworn police officers - a trend city officials hope to start reversing with the new budget.

Unions representing city workers say they share with the city's political leadership the commitment that public safety is a top priority. And, they say, this includes city services as well as sworn police officers.

With contracts set to expire June 30, workers represented by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21 say they have given back 25 percent of their incomes since 2008. Because of employee givebacks, the city saved $30 million in expenditures. And during that same time, they say, the city has cut its workforce by 20 percent, or about 800 workers. During that period the police force lost about 8 percent of its sworn officers.

Contract talks started last month.

"I'm tired of watching the quality of life issues for the people of Oakland go downhill fast," Dwight McElroy, president of Local 1021's Oakland chapter, told the crowd of over 200 workers and community supporters.

McElroy, a public works department employee, called on the city to reinvest in city programs and services lost because of the cutbacks and job losses. He also pointed out that the city "needs better policing, not just more police officers."

Oakland chapter Vice President Al Marshall added, "We provide the services to this community, from the kids two and three years old to the seniors. From the roadways to the trees and libraries, we handle the business of this city. It's time for us to remove the 25 percent we've been donating to the city for the past five years."

Marshall said he doesn't want anyone else to suffer the problems he's experienced, including the loss of his home.

The crowd responded with chants of "Enough is enough!" and "We're fired up, can't take it no more!"

"Public safety happens when our janitors are cleaning up here in front of City Hall," Alameda Labor Council head Josie Camacho told them as she pledged the full support of the area's unions.

"Who makes sure our libraries are open so our kids have somewhere to continue their education? Who makes sure our recreation centers are open, and our seniors have accessible senior centers? Who makes sure our city is a safe community, because we work here, we live here, and we want to be safe here? We do!"

West Oakland resident Shirley Burnell, a leader in the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment, said half the workers who used to clean up garbage in the neighborhoods have been laid off. "We don't want any more layoffs," she said. "In fact, we want them to start hiring back the people's they've already laid off. If they hire more police, but laid off all these people who keep our city going, what good is that going to do?"

After the rally, the unionists and their supporters crowded the meeting hall in anticipation of the City Council's discussion of budget priorities. Mayor Jean Quan is expected to release a proposed budget later this month.

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW

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