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On verge of a strike, San Jose city workers win a robust contract – and a stronger union

Workers for the city of San Jose held a rally in June outside City Hall. Photo: MEF/AFSCME Local 101
On verge of a strike, San Jose city workers win a robust contract – and a stronger union
By Pablo Ros ·
Tags: Momentum Wages

San Jose city workers were tired of business as usual. 

For years, the city had offered them subpar wages and benefits, creating a short-staffing crisis in public services that was made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. As caseloads increased, wages decreased in real terms – they failed to keep up with inflation, a problem exacerbated by last year’s price spikes.

By the time contract negotiations began in March on a new, three-year agreement, there were more than 900 unfilled vacancies citywide, and many workers desperately wanted change.

Although the challenge of fixing short staffing loomed large, the workers knew they had each other. As members of the Municipal Employees’ Federation (MEF)/AFSCME Local 101 (Council 57), they relied on the partnership of the City Association of Management Personnel/ International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, which also represents San Jose city workers. If they needed to act big, they knew there was precedent – it wouldn’t be the first time they’d taken historic collective action.

The city, on the other hand, failed to take them seriously, according to MEF. From the beginning, management refused to make any significant bargaining proposals or put forth any new ideas for solving the city’s vacancy crisis. The city’s first wage proposal, for a 3% raise, came more than a month after negotiations began. MEF bargaining team members called it “tone deaf.” MEF also accused the city of hiring what it described as a union-busting law firm to negotiate with the workers

Meanwhile, union members rolled up their sleeves and got creative. They put advertisements on buses and bus shelters all over the city to make residents of San Jose aware of the vacancy crisis and its negative impact on everyone in the community. Members of MEF and two fellow unions delivered a 75-foot-long petition to the city council with more than 2,000 signatures demanding that the city “Staff Up San Jose.” And they held Rally Week, a weeklong series of rallies at different city locations to get their message across. 

Finally, when the city continued to refuse to do the right thing, and after mediation failed, the workers voted to strike. They didn’t just say “yes” to a strike – members of MEF voted 99.26% in favor of a strike. 

The lopsided vote made it clear that the workers would remain united no matter what. Then, hours before the strike was set to begin, the city council accepted the workers’ proposal

“It happened at the eleventh hour,” says MEF President Cindy Harlin, an information technology specialist in the city’s police department. “The strike was just hours away. When I got word that the council had accepted our proposal, I felt like crying, it was such a relief.”  

The three-year contract includes wage raises of 14.5-15% over three years; eight weeks of paid family leave, up from a single week; the addition of Lunar New Year as a holiday and 8 hours of additional personal leave; increases to bilingual pay and shift differentials; and much more. 

MEF is 3,500 San Jose city workers strong. Members hold a wide range of positions, from librarians to parks and recreation workers, building and code enforcement officers, 911 dispatchers, airport employees and more. 

The workers ratified the agreement late last month by a vote of 91% in favor, and the city council formally adopted it this week. 

Harlin credited the workers’ success in part to member engagement and good communication. Through weekly updates and Member Action Team (MAT) meetings, members remained well informed and motivated. 

“We had constant communication with members, and they showed up, they were engaged,” Harlin says. “They came out in droves to participate in rallies, they made their presence felt. Honestly, had it not been for 99% of us that voted to strike, the city council would not have accepted our proposal.” 

Although bargaining with the city proved challenging, MEF members saw an opportunity and made the most of it. In the end, they not only won a great contract but made their union stronger than ever. 

“We grew our membership by 31% in just the last few months,” Harlin says. “The turnout of the last few months really shows that our members are engaged. People are asking to be union stewards now. They get that participation is key to having a strong union.”  

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