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Union members flood council chambers with "performance appraisal" forms, typically used to evaluate city workers, that graded Mayor Libby Schaaf's performance as "unacceptable."

Oakland city workers threaten to strike at council meeting

on September 20, 2017

On Tuesday, city workers belonging to two unions opened Oakland’s city council meeting—the first since summer recess—with a threat to strike.

Members of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021 and the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21 packed the floor and upper decks of the council chambers well before the councilmembers arrived, singing, “We are the union! The mighty, mighty union!” and chanting “What do we want? Contract! When do we want it? Now!”

Together, the unions represent a wide range of city employees from sewer maintenance technicians to librarians, custodians to animal control officers. Each union’s bargaining team has been negotiating with the city for a new contract.

Speaking before the meeting, Felipe Cuevas, Oakland chapter president of SEIU Local 1021, cited low pay, the lack of a cost-of-living wage increase, the overuse of part-time workers—who have no benefits and often-inadequate training—and poor working conditions as among their grievances. Cuevas says comparable unions in North California and Bay Area counties are negotiating contracts that have a cost of living adjustment of at least the three percent, the rate of inflation, but that Oakland officials are not guaranteeing an increase to even meet this target, let alone a pay raise.

“It’s been five months of solid negotiations and the city has not put any money on the table,” he said. “They may tell you that we have money on the table, but there’s no money guaranteed.”

After councilmembers arrived, 15 of 44 speakers who had signed up were allowed to speak in open forum. Union members do everything “from maintaining the streets to taking 911 calls,” said Renee Sykes, vice president of IFPTE Local 21, addressing the council.  “Coming to the bargaining table without [cost of living] increases for Oakland workers is frankly damn insulting.”

“We are so fed up,” said Alice McCain, an Oakland public librarian and homeowner who is also on the bargaining team with SEIU 1021.  She held up a handwritten sign listing names of librarians who she said “wanted to be here tonight, but they couldn’t come because they’re keeping the libraries open until 8 pm tonight.”

“I am very concerned about the long-lasting impacts on worker morale and Oakland’s reputation as a place to work if the tone at the negotiating table does not change very soon,” said Zach Seal, of IFPTE Local 21. “Since 2017, when you include our cost of living adjustments and our increased pension contribution, we’ve received a six percent total pay increase over 10 years.  And now you’re telling us we deserve zero percent guaranteed [cost of living adjustments] for the next two years.”

“This does not represent my Oakland values,” he added. “This is not fair.  This is not progressive.”

“You’re provoking us by telling us that we don’t deserve a raise to keep up with the cost of living,” Cuevas said at the podium. “If you provoke us, we will strike you!”

SEIU member Frankie Izzo, who has worked for the city for over 20 years, pointed out that every year workers have to go through a “performance appraisal,” where they are “judged on “everything from customer service to our timeliness and attendance.”  She introduced SEIU’s own version—a “performance appraisal” of Mayor Libby Schaaf.  “We found her unacceptable in all areas including accountability to city of Oakland employees, except in one area where she exceeds expectations, which is ‘fattening the pockets of developers at taxpayers’ expense,’” said Izzo to a round of applause.

City workers then tossed stacks of the pink “performance appraisals” in the air, and exited the council chamber chanting “Whose city? Our city!”  Councilmembers and several others scurried to pick up the flyers, which covered the floor of the chamber.

After the majority of union members left the hall, Selia Warren, Oakland’s deputy city attorney, went to the podium and concurred with her fellow union members.  “The attorneys are also a part of Local 21,” she said. “We too feel the burdens that the rest of the union feels.”

She said that the city has recently lost four lawyers to other jurisdictions, including the federal Department of Justice and the city of Alameda.  “We’re not a competitive employer, said Warren.

“We’re not asking for a pie in the sky,” she added.  “We’re just asking to be paid fairly.”

In a written statement sent Wednesday morning responding to the criticism raised at the meeting, City Administrator Sabrina Landreth said that the city is remains “in an atmosphere of many financial uncertainties,” and that administration officials cannot “publicly discuss specific proposals” in regards to the contract.

“We remain optimistic,” she concluded.

Late Tuesday night, councilmembers voted to enact an ordinance declaring a two-year emergency shelter crisis in response to the thousands of Oakland residents living without stable and permanent shelter. The ordinance is largely symbolic until the city administration, with pressure and guidance from the council, takes further action.

On September 1, Landreth issued a memo declaring the immediate goals of “adding safety and sanitation services at up to 5 encampments this fiscal year, developing and operating at least one outdoor safe haven site,” a city-sanctioned encampment, and “acquiring and developing a second ‘Henry Robinson like’ facility for interim housing leading to permanent housing.”  She also replaced Joe Devries, Assistant to the City Administrator, the city’s traditional point person on homelessness, with Assistant City Administrator Christine Daniel to be in charge of the city’s “Homeless Action Team.”

According to Alameda County’s 2017 homeless count, 2,761 people are currently homeless in Oakland, 1,902 of them unsheltered, though housing advocate Needa Bee of the grassroots Homeless Advocacy Working Group (HAWG), said that number is much higher, due to people sleeping in their cars or in areas that are out of sight to surveyors.

“It’s my nephews, my nieces, my aunties, my uncles, my mamas and my daddies—the ones that stay in these camps, and the ones that get knocked out on these streets,” said Daryle Allums, a 41-year-old lifelong Oakland resident, urging the council to provide housing to those in need.

Councilmembers passed a similar one-year shelter crisis state of emergency in December, 2015. Councilmember-at-large Rebecca Kaplan said that the city administration promised to come back with an action plan after three months, but that city staff never followed through. She pledged that she would continue to push for action.

At the Life Enrichment Committee meeting on Tuesday, September 26, city administrators will present potential sites for city-owned land that could become a city-sanctioned encampment.

Members of HAWG, which formed after “The Village”—an unsanctioned encampment that began providing plywood housing to homeless residents in West Oakland in January—was bulldozed by the city, continue to press for city-owned sites to be released to either non-profits or self-organized homeless communities. They pointed to Portland’s “Dignity Village” as a model, a homeless encampment run by residents with city officials’ blessing.

Members told the council that one site alone is not enough to make a dent in the level of need. “What we do know is that you can’t do it by yourself, that you’re going to need the people behind you, too,” said Bee. “What we keep on hearing is that there just isn’t enough money.  And what we keep on saying is that we don’t need the money, just give us the land.”

She said that “The Village” built three homes in four days, had plans for 18 more, and provided wrap-around services at the camp. “Please act like this is a state of emergency,” she added.

Councilmember Larry Reid (District 7) said the county should solve the problem, not the city, because it receives most of the state money to address homelessness. An audience member responded by shouting from the gallery that he was “passing the buck” and called him an “ethical failure.”

Kaplan motioned to pass the ordinance as an emergency—an official designation that needs six votes, rather than five—and does not require a second reading at a subsequent council meeting. Five members voted “aye,” but Councilmembers Lynette Gibson-McElhaney (District 3) and Desley Brooks (District 6) were not present and Reid abstained.  A second reading for final passage will occur on October 3.

“I was prepared to vote for it,” Reid said after the meeting adjourned. “But I don’t like people that try to intimidate me, and yell and scream at me, and talk out of place,” referring to the comments from the audience, as well as an audience member’s request for clarification on council procedure when it was not public comment time. “So my vote that I took was to say, ‘I can vote any way I want to,’” Reid said.

Councilmembers also voted to move forward with Kaplan’s plan to conduct a feasibility study for a public bank of Oakland, which would be one of the first of its kind in the nation. Public banks are seen by supporters like Kaplan as publicly accountable, mission-driven alternatives to traditional Wall Street banks. Global Investment Company will conduct the study.

Susan Harman, representing the Friends of the Public Bank of Oakland, presented 1,500 signature from residents in support of the bank as well a letter of support signed by 50 organizations.

“We have appeared before you many times. And every time, like in the fairy tale when the hero comes before the king and asks for the king’s daughter’s hand in marriage, you’ve asked us to go kill some dragon somewhere,” Harman said, referring the council’s requests over past months that the group obtain regional partners.  Harman held up a large dragon puppet to indicate that “the dragon” has been slain.

After the City of Berkeley pledged $25,000 and anonymous private donors pledged “several thousand dollars,” according to Kaplan, the city of Oakland will now kick in the rest of the $100,000 to conduct the study.

In other council business, councilmembers confirmed final passage of an ordinance banning the sale of flavored tobacco, a product which health advocates say is designed to make kids and teenagers addicted to nicotine.  The tobacco cigarette industry is the number one killer of African-Americans, said Carol O. McGruder, co-chair of the African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council, who urged the council to complete final passage of the ban.

Several vape company representatives said the ordinance would harm their businesses.  One Oakland resident who said he’s a partner in a vape company, and whose mother died from cancer, said that vaping “allows people to substitute one addiction for an addition that’s a lot less harmful” and claimed that the ordinance being passed “was going to kill a lot of people.”

Dr. Phillip Gardiner, of UC Berkeley’s Tobacco Related Disease Research Program, who argued in favor of the ban, said that e-cigarettes don’t produce cancer, but that 60 percent of tobacco-related deaths are caused by cardiovascular disease. E-cigarettes are also showing links to cardiovascular disease, he added, but that “we haven’t done the full studies on that yet.”

A decision to change city security vendors from Cypress Security to ABC Security Service was sent back to Public Works staff, after councilmembers requested more information on why that decision was being made.  Under SIEU’s labor agreement, security guards would not lose their jobs if ABC replaces Cypress. But they could lose their jobs if A1 Protective Services, which is not unionized, is chosen.

Councilmember Annie Campbell Washington (District 4) also called for possibly requiring metal detectors and armed security guards at the entrance to city hall.

Finally, councilmembers passed a resolution urging “Congress to fight to protect and defend DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals] youth”—young immigrants protected by an Obama-era executive order that was recently terminated by the Trump administration.

The full council will meet again next Tuesday, October 3.

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Photo by Basil D Soufi
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