Lack of virus protection forces Santa Cruz workers to plan strike
SEIU members and backers walking into a Board of Supervisors meeting in Santa Cruz where they expressed concern over worker safety. | SEIU/Facebook

SANTA CRUZ, Calif. —Refusal to invest more money in public health services to protect residents against the coronavirus pandemic forced the Santa Cruz County, Calif., workforce to plan an unfair labor practices strike, starting January 25, their union announced.

The county’s “last, best, and final offer” was completely inadequate on that issue and others affecting frontline workers and county residents, such as trash pickup, said social worker Veronica Velazquez, president of 1,600-worker Service Employees Local 521. The contract expired in September and 1,000+ workers voted 93%-7% in December to OK a strike.

“Workers made clear from the resounding rejection of the county’s LBFO that we will not accept any agreement that does not sufficiently invest in community services during a public health crisis,” she explained. That forced the workers to walk.

“We have made our willingness clear to management that we are ready to continue negotiating to reach a fair and just deal that addresses the challenges facing county workers.”

“We desperately need more resources to combat the Omicron surge” of the coronavirus pandemic, “let alone keep frontline workers from running for the door,” public health nurse Katie Williams added in the union’s statement.

“With the lack of public investment our community needlessly suffers,” the union said. Meanwhile, County Executive Carlos Palacios earns four times the median pay of his workers. “There is no doubt the (county) supervisors’ priorities are upside down.”

Palacios’ pay was $313,569.86 in 2020, the last year for which figures are available.

The SEIU workers in Santa Cruz thus join the hundreds of thousands of front-line workers nationwide, who, disgusted and upset with low pay while putting their health and lives on the line during the coronavirus pandemic, have been forced to strike.

The forced walkouts have been so pervasive the AFL-CIO jocularly called last October “Striketober.” Job actions continued afterwards, including at monster private firms, such as at Amazon warehouses in Chicago. A two-day walkout there occurred just before December 25 over low pay, long hours, and lack of transportation after shifts ended in the middle of the night.

Besides short-staffing—Palacios boasts the county employs fewer people than before the 2008 Bush crash—and poverty-level pay, the county diverted $4 million from public health clinics despite the pandemic. It has a $14 million surplus and sits on $53 million in reserves.

The union has raised all those issues, noting the county has a 20% vacancy rate and 87% of departing workers left because of the low pay, not via retirement. The county hasn’t responded in talks, the union adds.


Mark Gruenberg
Mark Gruenberg

Award-winning journalist Mark Gruenberg is head of the Washington, D.C., bureau of People's World. He is also the editor of the union news service Press Associates Inc. (PAI). Known for his reporting skills, sharp wit, and voluminous knowledge of history, Mark is a compassionate interviewer but tough when going after big corporations and their billionaire owners.