Public Employee Committee Gives Voice to All City Workers, Notching Wins as It Wraps Up Negotiations

By Robert Fulton | contributing writer

Over the past four months, a raft of consequential negotiations has been underway between two parties: a coordinated amalgam of unions called the Public Employee Committee (PEC) that represents tens of thousands of city workers, and the City of San Francisco. These talks haven’t been without drama, but as bargaining rounds third and heads for home, it’s clear that things have wrapped up peacefully while also shaping up well for the affected workers.

City employees have some significant wins to celebrate. If you’re looking for the headline, it might be this: Bargaining between the PEC and the City has resulted in a pay increase of 13% for city employees over three years. Each individual union also secured additional victories specific to its city-worker membership.

Of course, these victories don’t tell the whole story of what’s been achieved by this unique exercise in bargaining power and citywide labor unity known as the PEC. The secret sauce is the solidarity.

How the PEC Works

The PEC comprises 15 of SF’s building trades unions, plus the International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers (IFPTE) Local 21, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, and a laundry list of other local unions representing a whopping total of roughly 25,000 municipal workers who do everything from accounting to civil engineering to nursing and beyond.

Added together, IFPTE Local 21, SEIU Local 1021, and the building trades coalition account for the biggest share of members within the PEC, which represents a total of 26 unions altogether.

SF Building Trades Council Secretary-Treasurer Rudy Gonzalez is one of three PEC co-chairs. The others are IFPTE Local 21 Executive Director Debra Grabelle and SEIU Local 1021 Executive Director David Canham. Together, the three determine the direction of PEC negotiations and are responsible for coordinating with all of the other PEC bargaining contingents to achieve the best possible outcome for each category of city worker.

The PEC’s building trades bargaining contingent represents tradespeople across numerous crafts, with 15 of the 27 council-affiliated unions covering city workers in some capacity. Significant numbers of laborers, electricians, and plumbers work for the City, but specific contracts also cover city-employed trades workers who are fewer in number, such as roofers and glaziers.

Gonzalez takes pride in standing up for the unions with fewer members in the PEC and ensuring their needs are taken into account at the bargaining table.

“These workers legitimately have more power when they’re sitting with and speaking with one voice,” he said.

An Exercise in Solidarity

It’s that solidarity that powers the PEC, which works only if it’s able to advocate with diligence for the needs of tens of thousands of workers across multiple jurisdictions while also letting those unions retain their autonomy in the bargaining process.

Strength in numbers and the ability to agree to such overarching issues as wage increases are two primary PEC characteristics that help guard against the City attempting to take a divide-and-conquer approach by isolating and co-opting smaller unions, pushing bad deals on them, and then pitting them against the next group.

“Even in good times, when the City had a huge surplus, we were susceptible to being kind of peeled off from each other,” Gonzalez said. “We don’t want anyone to settle for less than what they deserve.”

One option in the PEC toolkit is the threat of a strike. Collectively withholding labor when necessary is an assumed right for any organized labor body. But until recently, if city workers voted to strike, San Francisco could just fire them.

Just last year, the California Public Employment Relations Board returned a decision against the City and in favor of city employees, striking down a provision in the SF charter that forbade its workers from striking.

Empowered by the board’s decision affirming their right to strike, PEC members wanted to make it clear that they weren’t interested in being jerked around by the City during these recent negotiations. To show just how serious SF’s labor movement was — and to send the message that a strike was a very real option should worse come to worse — city workers held a massive rally in the City in January to flex their union-strong muscle. They also attended a strike-readiness event called Strike School in March.

Not that anyone on the City’s side of the table was trying to play hardball and spoiling for a labor stoppage. It is an election year, after all. A strike on Mayor London Breed’s watch would surely not have gone over well with the electorate, so fair negotiation was in her administration’s best interest.

Transit Strike Averted

... And then there was one: Transport Workers Union Local 250-A, which represents Muni operators, fare inspectors, and mechanics citywide. Reportedly, 62% of Local 250-A members rejected their union’s tentative agreement with the City during a vote on Wednesday, May 29.

That meant a very real possibility that San Francisco could have faced a transit strike as early as July 1, when the workers’ old contract expires.

But just as this newspaper was about to go to press, word came down that the transport workers had ratified an amended contract, fully closing out this round of bargaining between the PEC and the City.

Gonzalez said that the transport workers were in a strong negotiating position thanks most likely to that election-year leverage.

Beyond the Committee

While the PEC negotiated across-the-board items such as raises, the individual unions engaged in their own bargaining for more specific agreements. It shook out well for the building trades.

IBEW Local 6 Business Manager John Doherty, whose union represents approximately 850 city electrical workers, called out graveyard premiums and the resolution of staffing issues at SF Municipal Transportation Agency substations as contract highlights for his membership.

Business Representative Mark Leach is with Teamsters Local 856, which represents a litany of city-worker classifications, such as parking meter repairers, pharmacy supervisors, and building inspectors. He emphasized how impressed he was with the cooperation not just among the teamster negotiators but throughout the PEC, calling it the “epitome of solidarity.”

“It feels good to be in a group of people negotiating with common goals and not forgetting about the smallest group, but coming up with true solidarity in our decisions,” Leach said.

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