Union protest overwhelms early Oakland City Council budget talks

SEIU Local 1021 Chapter President Dwight McElroy revs up the workers gathered outside City Hall before Tuesday's City Council meeting.

SEIU Local 1021 Chapter President Dwight McElroy revs up the workers gathered outside City Hall before Tuesday's City Council meeting.

As the city gets ready to tackle a new two-year budget, councilmembers heard a presentation on Oakland’s fiscal future at Tuesday’s city council meeting. Whoops, jeers and the sound of a cowbell punctuated the meeting, and before the council could hear the presentation, they heard from dozens of angry union members as chants of  “Enough is enough!” from audience members stalled proceedings more than once.

The meeting focused on budget talk, and the main item on the agenda was a presentation by City Administrator Deanna Santana that gave an overview of past and current budget conditions. Santana said that after 6 years of severe shortfalls, which resulted in layoffs, mandatory staff furloughs and cuts to most city departments, the budget was more stable, but the city still faces a deficit ranging from roughly $19 million to 26 million, depending on how the city approaches police staffing, for fiscal year 2013. That deficit is expected to increase over the coming years. But, she pointed out, there have been no new layoffs since last summer and some city services are being restored.

An hour before the meeting started, over a hundred workers from local unions representing public services employees gathered in front of City Hall to protest. The city’s three major non-public safety unions are negotiating new contracts this year, and union leaders said they’ve seen the city’s financial forecast and allege that officials are downplaying revenue increases in a move to undercut them at the negotiating table.

After making contract concessions for half a decade during the most severe points in the city’s budget crisis, they’re not giving any more, they said. “We’re all here fighting for a fair contract,” said Stennis Raymond, an SEIU (Service Employees International Union) member and maintenance mechanic for the city. “We’ve given up a lot the last few years.” Now that the city is “in the black,” he said, he wants to see it reflected in his paycheck.

Union leaders also said they felt that financing the Oakland Police Department is monopolizing a large piece of the city budget. “It’s pretty unconscionable to throw everything to the police,” said Chris Candell, vice president of IFPTE (International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers) Local 21. He said that public service workers are integral to public safety; as a building inspector he helps ensure homes are safe, he said, and other public employees like teachers and librarians play a role in preventing problems. “Cops come in and mop up afterwards. They’re reactive; we’re proactive,” he said.

As the meeting began, bodies packed the council chambers and the galleries upstairs. When the councilmembers had taken their seats, the room broke out in a round of “Enough is enough!” The Pledge of Allegiance segued into a cacophony of outbursts of “And justice for all! And justice for all! We want justice!” People began to chant “No justice, no peace! No justice, no peace.” There was more yelling and more cowbell.

People waved signs reading “No more concessions. No more takeaways.” Others hung ones that read “We’ve paid our share enough” from the balcony. Many people were wearing purple SEIU 1021 shirts featuring a cobra on the back with the warning “Will strike when provoked,” which were embellished with red, heart-shaped “Oakland library” stickers.

Council President Pat Kernighan struggled to impose order.  “With this many speakers it’s going to have to be one minute per speaker,” she started.

“Nooooo! Boooooo!” people yelled. “Your time is up! Take a pay cut then! Furlough!”

Kernighan kept trying  “We’re trying to facilitate this so—”

“Stop talking!” someone yelled.

As Kernighan attempted to clarify when and for how long members of the public would speak, people grew impatient. District 6 Councilmember Desley Brooks and Kernighan exchanged some terse words and the crowd seized on it. Another round of “Enough is enough!” drowned Kernighan out.

Finally the public forum started. Most of the speakers were workers, who believe the city’s budget projections purposely underestimate revenue. They point to the rebounding real estate market and the city’s own figures as proof that the economic climate has improved, but fear the city will use budget woes as a ploy to lowball them in contract negotiations. Workers say they’ve done their share to help, while the city has failed to curb wasteful spending by the police department. They’re pushing for the “civilianization” of administrative police jobs as one way to save money, and question the city’s plan to significantly increase police staffing levels.

“We remember when you removed 12 days from our work week without pay,” said Dwight McElroy, SEIU Local 1021 chapter president, referring to furlough days. “We are not anti-police, but we are extremely pro-proportioning of resources. We know city has plans to continue to take from us. We’ve given back at least 9 percent of our salaries. … My coworkers and myself make 25 percent less than we made in 2007.”

As he finished someone in the balcony yelled, “Take your hands out my pockets!” at the council.

Al Marshall, another Local 1021 member, spoke next. He said he’s worked in the city for 25 years. As he talked about his financial struggles over the past few years he paused, tried to suppress his tears, and banged his fist on the podium. Two big purple-shirted men put their arms around Marshall and he continued, voice cracking. “I’ve given the city back one quarter of my salary in furlough days,” he said. “I did this so the city could balance its budget. I think the roles need to reverse … Your budget report is not honest. They city continues to downplay Oakland’s growth. … Be fair to the workforce. You owe it to the workers who have sacrificed their quality of life.”

After dozens of speakers, Santana began her presentation. She said the city had faced shortfalls totaling nearly $318 million over the last six years, which led to a 20 percent reduction in the city’s full-time workforce, and major cuts to internal service departments in an effort to sustain front-line services. During the same period, the sworn OPD workforce was reduced 27 percent and the civilian OPD workforce was reduced 34 percent, Santana said. Community services also saw significant cuts. Library hours were limited to five days per week from six and recreation center hours were reduced—just about every other service suffered, from programs for the homeless to tree trimming and street repair.

The cuts weren’t enough, so city employees took salary cuts, vacation reductions and the city imposed furlough days. Things leveled out in July, 2012, Santana said, when for the first time in four years, there were no new cuts or layoffs. The city restored some services and funded an additional police training academy.

Santana touched on a few of the challenges that lay ahead, but a subsequent presentation by Andrew Murray of the city’s budget office went into detail. He presented the city’s 2013 to 2018 five-year forecast. Since 2003, the council has required forecasting, he said, with the intention of putting current decisions into a long-term context. The forecast is an estimate of future fiscal conditions based on a set of assumptions; it’s an initial step in understand budget conditions. He emphasized that it is only an estimate, not an authorized spending plan. “It’s a necessary first step in getting on same page,” Murray said. “The point is to help the city make an informed decision.” He added a caveat:  “It can’t be precise because we’re being asked to tell the future.”

His office’s forecast concludes that the city’s expenditure increases will outpace revenues, though revenue is coming in higher than anticipated and is expected to grow at modest but steady rate. Murray listed higher pension costs, higher police academy costs, ongoing police staffing costs, and higher internal staffing costs as key reasons for growing expenditures. He projected a shortfall starting at $14.5 million in 2013 and ballooning to $48 million by 2018.

After Murray’s talk the floor was opened for public comment. David Kernsten, a researcher for SEIU Local 1021, challenged the forecast figures. He claimed the forecast uses outdated revenue figures and “questionable accounting practices.” He said officials failed to consider one-time revenue and grant money and questioned the OPD budget figures and academy numbers listed in the report. “I think we should have a more detailed conversation when the budget comes out,” he said.

As the councilmembers discussed the presentations, they echoed Kernsten’s call for circumspect action. “I think numbers may come in higher than projected,” at-large Councilmember Rebecca Kaplan said, “but I want to respect that we don’t know.”

In a nod to the unions she suggested a bonus system based on shared prosperity, but provided few details. She suggested the system might create “additional bonus based on what comes in so we can deal with uncertainty together and share in success.”

The councilmembers acknowledged the sacrifices made by the city’s workers over the past few years and discussed the need to fund both police services and community services. “How do we become a safer city if we do not give equal consideration to the things that support a safety net?” asked District 3 Councilmember Lynette Gibson-McElhaney. “That is our libraries, our parks and making sure we are partnering with our schools.”

Mayor Quan will release a proposed budget later this month.


  1. livegreen

    Can somebody clarify how 9% = 25%? as in:

    “We’ve given back at least 9 percent of our salaries. … My coworkers and myself make 25 percent less than we made in 2007”.

    Also, the City Council is going to have to decide: good public service -or- wages & benefits that are as high as SF yet whose taxpayers earn 1/2 the per capita income as SF…

    • jean parks

      Reading the article and Paragraph 17 and 18. There are salary cuts, at least 12 furlough days which are days off without pay and vacation reductions and previous cuts. I don’t think it mentions all the workers who were layed off and lost their jobs. The 9% is only the salary give back as the SEIU chapter president said.Notice the dot dot dot after “at least 9 percent of our salaries” there was more Dwight MacElroy said that was not in the article that would have clarified the following 25% figure. All takeaways added together and considering the cost of living has gone up,I believe, at least 11% over the last 5 years. I can see the 25%

  2. Dan Woloz

    Public employees have NO right to complain!

  3. len raphael

    How much sympathy lost cola’s will garner in city where many residents are more concerned with having a decent job with benefits than getting cost of living raises is another story.

    SEIU and the other non-public safety unions screwed themselves over the last decade by supporting unaffordable increases in benefits and compensation especially for the benefits for public safety. They supported the binding arbitration clause in the city charter that made it near impossible to negotiate lower compensation for public safety people. That’s why they took the brunt of the cuts.

    The 5 year projection is a much less political document than the official 2 year budget will be. The 2 year budget will have line items that magically ‘balance” it for possible future revenue that might happen.

    The city staff who prepared the 5 year budget very clearly stated that if the city were to start paying down the very large obligations and liabilities for retirement benefits, delayed maintenance, and underfunded CALPERs, that the projected annual shortfalls would be very large. (I think they said add another 100 MILLION to the annual deficits for the next five years). The presentation is online at http://oakland.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=2&clip_id=1243

    Use the drop down to jump to item 5.

  4. len raphael

    Even without trying to fund those overhanging liabilities, city staff explained that the shortfall caused by expenditures exceeding revenue would actually grow over the next five years even thought revenue is expected to grow.

    That makes sense because instead of setting aside money for our promises to city employees over the years, we “pay as we go”. As baby boomers retire, that is going to be awful. Aka generational theft

    • len raphael

      The recently announced Chinese financing for Oak to Ninth project is going to be a test case for whether our elected officials have learned from the past decade of fiscal problems.

      I’m not impressed by the announcement of this deal because I’ve lived here so long I’ve gotten cynical about those announcements.

      I heard similar trumpeting of the dawn of new eras and projections of big boosts to local employment and city tax revenue when we committed ourselves to 20Mill/year to induce the Raiders to come back; for City Center, for Jerry Brown’s 10k resident progam with Uptown, for the Ice Rink, for the Trans Asian Center, Airport Connector, the Army Base, etc.

      Show me the big return on the City’s investment that those projects have gotten us? Returns yes. But relative to the cost?

      To say that this project is all private money is not accurate.

      It’s long been a done deal that 100% public waterfront property was converted to mostly private property at below market rate.

      I was not part of the original Oak to 9th battles, but I do know that the project went thru because the many opponents who signed a petition to have the approval put to a public vote, were defeated because they ran out of money for lawyers. The main issue over which their petition was rejected by the court was later overturned in a different case of a different plaintiff.

      It was not one of the City or City Attorney John Russo’s finer moments in democracy.

      That’s history.

      Now, we have to make sure our officials don’t repeat the more recent history of the last real estate bubble by spending the temporary jump in building fees and transfer taxes that should come in a year or so, instead of paying down long ignored retirement and undone infrastructure liabilities.

      There will be tremendous pressure brought to bear on elected officials by the non-security city workers to get their temporary cuts restored out of that temporary increase in revenue and the current jump from the current real estate bubble. Deja vue here we come.


      Len Raphael

  5. Bob

    The city council has betrayed us for the unions.

    The unions are right — the police/fire unions have even beat out the other unions for an unfair share.

    Our city council has bungled the pension bonds and now we have a huge pile of debt that will come due soon. No way to pay people their pensions.

    Then Quan goes and offers huge raises to the port of oakland workers. SMART MOVE, now everyone wants some.

    Oakland will go the way of Stockton without a drastic change. No more “politics as usual”!

  6. BBaxter

    Besides the money that the City of Oakland has messed up normally, people need to find out how much is being wasted by hiring too many “administrators”, making up positions so people’s family & friends can benefit. How much money is being spent on taxpayer provided vacations (they call them “retreats” and “conferences”); bonuses (which negate feeling any furlough pinch – especially near Christmas); taxpayer paid for vehicles, gas, public transport (City Shuttle, for example); how about reimbursing them for clothing and food “expenses”? How about what they spend to “pimp out” their offices? How much is spent on their work environment – does a government worker need granite counter-tops in the employee bathroom? Do we need to pay $15,000.00+ for a desk? Does Microsoft Word need a 30″ flatscreen monitor – or two, and an i7 core PC? Do we need to pay for aroma therapy, air filtration systems, personal training sessions, massages??? That doesn’t sound like a government entity that is complaining about a deficit – but it is. They won’t give up any of that, but they want to take from the low wage workers (which the same people have MADE low wage, btw) and tell the public it’s “necessary”.

    The first thing they should have done when everything was looking better is to restore the worker’s wages back – instead they start some new stuff (and I wanted to use the other word) that they know they cannot afford – just a bs excuse. It isn’t the Union’s fault, people who say that have no clue of what’s going on.

    Its the City administration living high on the hog and not giving a flying monkey what happens to the other workers – or you taxpayers. Just look at the job opportunity website and see how many overpaid admin jobs (which btw include HR, who didn’t pay so outrageously until the 2000s – adding to the problems) are listed – why are they paying so much and hiring more people if we are in a deficit and cannot afford what they already promised to it’s existing workforce??? Why don’t you people complaining about the public “workers” pay a visit to the City’s admin offices (some of which are locked so the “dirty public” can’t get to them) and check out how they work? Go find out how good they have it before you complain about Jose the City Gardener, Mary the Custodian or Willy the Security Guard – all who not only are struggling just like you, but do not waste your taxes working lavish and extravagantly… in a GOVERNMENT job.

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