Oakland city workers rally to fill vacancies, win fair pay, and uphold rights
Oakland city workers, members of SEIU Local 1021 and IFPTE Local 21, were joined by labor and community allies as they held a lively noontime “informational picket” in the heart of downtown. | Marilyn Bechtel/PW

OAKLAND, Calif. – Fed up after nearly nine months of contract talks and almost three months without a contract, hundreds of Oakland city workers, members of SEIU Local 1021 and IFPTE Local 21, were joined by labor and community allies as they held a lively noontime “informational picket” in the heart of downtown, near City Hall Sept. 25.

Among the workers were engineers, librarians, planners, transportation and public works staff, street paving and cleaning crews, 911 dispatchers, neighborhood service coordinators, housing services staff, Head Start program coordinators and many others.

The message from the two unions that between them represent some 3,000 city workers: At the same time the city is thriving economically, the administration must fill some 600 now-vacant positions that provide Oakland residents with vital services, offer wage increases reflecting the rising cost of living, and uphold workers’ benefits and key civil service protections.

Felipe Cuevas, a heavy equipment mechanic and president of Local 1021’s Oakland Chapter, told the crowd, “In my shop, we’ve gone for almost four years with 50 percent understaffing … we’re doing the work of two and three people.” Cuevas said the chronic understaffing of positions already budgeted and paid for by the city’s taxpayers means potholes that don’t get filled, streets that don’t get paved, homeless people who aren’t being helped, firetrucks that don’t get fixed.

Marilyn Bechtel/PW

Said Local 1021 President Joseph Bryant, “We keep hearing this narrative that we can’t afford to staff up or take care of the workers that make this city happen.” But, he added, “as we were coming here today, did anybody see a bunch of construction projects, or a lot of new businesses? The city is thriving!”

Bryant also reflected on another side of the vacancies, as he told of a union brother, born and raised in Oakland, who was homeless for a long time before being hired as a city worker. “Now he’s gainfully employed, he loves his job, he loves serving the city of Oakland,” Bryant said, “and there are 600 other opportunities that could have the same impact on somebody’s life.”

IFPTE Local 21’s Nicole Welch emphasized the urgency of upholding civil service protections. “For decades, we fought to strengthen and defend these rights, to protect us from nepotism, favoritism and discrimination,” she said. “And while this system isn’t perfect, it’s created a strong and diverse workforce. So today we are here to defend our basic right to fairness and diversity in the workplace.”

Longtime city worker Laura Takeshita, a member of Local 21’s bargaining team, said the city’s proposed salary increases don’t match Oakland’s rising cost of living. “One of the things we’re seeing now is that a lot of people who have been longtime city workers can no longer afford to live here,” she said. “But they love the city, their co-workers have become family, so they’re commuting from Vallejo, Fairfield and longer.

“We work hard, we try to support the community as best we can,” Takeshita said. “I think we deserve a fair wage, because we earn it!”

Takeshita said that with the city and unions going into the factfinding phase of bargaining at the end of this week, area readers could help by contacting the offices of Mayor Libby Schaaf and City Administrator Sabrina Landreth and indicating their support for the workers.

Joining the workers to express their support were Alameda Labor Council head Liz Ortega; area Assemblymember Rob Bonta, Oakland City Councilmembers Nikki Fortunato Bas and Sheng Thao, and staff members from the offices of Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris and City Council President Rebecca Kaplan.

Also walking the picket line in solidarity were members of UNITE HERE, Oakland Education Association, Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Oakland Tenants Union, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy and East Bay Housing Organizations, among others.

Earlier this month another Democratic presidential candidate, Vermont’s Sen. Bernie Sanders, tweeted his support: “I stand with the 3,000 SEIU 1021 and IFPTE Local 21 public servants fighting to provide quality city services to the residents of Oakland. It’s unacceptable that 600 positions are currently unfilled.”

Marilyn Bechtel/PW

The two unions said in a Sept. 25 joint press release that Oakland’s mayor and city administrator “have not shown a willingness to reach a fair contract” addressing core issues like the Bay Area’s high cost of living, chronic understaffing and protecting key benefits and civil service rights.

They said the city’s April Staffing Report showed Housing and Community Development understaffed by nearly 23 percent, Transportation understaffed by 24 percent, and Public Works understaffed by nearly 19 percent.

The unions also noted that they have each filed Unfair Labor Practice charges against the city administration for sending retaliatory e-mails threatening layoffs, and for prematurely declaring impasse in the middle of bargaining.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021 represents over 60,000 workers in local governments, schools, non-profit agencies, health care programs and special districts throughout northern California, including over 2,000 Oakland city workers.

The International Federation of Professional and Technical Employees represents over 10,000 public workers in the San Francisco Bay Area, including nearly 1,000 professional and technical employees of the City of Oakland.


CONTRIBUTOR

Marilyn Bechtel
Marilyn Bechtel

Marilyn Bechtel writes for the People’s World from the San Francisco Bay Area. She joined the PW staff in 1986, and currently participates as a volunteer.

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