Transparent Costa Mesa Labor Negotiations Are Not a Pretty Sight

Friday, August 09, 2013

The Orange County city of Costa Mesa passed an ordinance a year ago opening future contract negotiations with employees to an unprecedented level of transparency.

This week, everyone got a clear view of the city’s initial offer (pdf) and, for many, it was tough to look at.

The city’s 200 employees, who have been without a contract since March, were offered across-the-board 5% pay cuts. Top-step employees would get an additional 5% cut if they weren’t ranked “outstanding” in their next performance evaluation. New hires would start at 10% less. Employees would pick up all future health care cost increases and give up the right to be warned they are getting laid off.   

The employees were not happy. “The city's proposal is a reflection of how the council majority views its dedicated employees—with contempt,” Costa Mesa City Employees Association President Helen Nenadal said in a statement.

Although expressing surprise at the aggressiveness of the proposal, they were aware they had been warned. After four years of punishing economic misfortune, a conservative city council grew even more conservative following the 2010 election. An ensuing budget battle grew bloody when the council voted to send layoff notices to half the city’s employees as a cornerstone of its austerity plan, which included outsourcing many city services.

A month after that, in March 2011, one of the fired employees, 29-year-old maintenance engineer Huy Pham, jumped to his death from the roof of City Hall. The employee association sued to block the layoffs, while the battle drew national attention from cities across the nation locked in their own economic/political turmoil.

In August 2012, the council passed an ordinance ostensibly to add transparency to the city’s labor negotiating process. Its supporters trumpeted it as a good government measure. Its detractors thought it a thinly veiled ploy. “We are absolutely advocates for transparency, but . . . (this ordinance is) an effort to create a one-sided venue for the council to frame political attacks on Costa Mesa employees,” Jennifer Muir, assistant general manager of the Orange County Employees Association, told the Orange County Register in an email.

The conservatives nearly lost their majority in November 2012 elections, and voters  rejected 59-41 the controversial Measure V—a proposal to become a charter city and effectively adopt its own local constitution that would make it easier to outsource jobs and curb union power

Later that month, the California Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal from Costa Mesa officials to remove a court injunction that blocked the layoffs and privatization of their jobs.  

The city rescinded the layoffs in December. In February an Orange County Superior Court judge revisited the outsourcing injunction and dissolved it, and the city has formed a Costa Mesa Charter Committee to seek “supreme authority over ‘municipal affairs.’ ”   

The city and employees association are scheduled to meet on September 10.

–Ken Broder


To Learn More:

Costa Mesa to Workers: For Your Next Contract, We’re Taking Everything Away! (Liberal OC)

Costa Mesa City Hall Proposes Deep Cuts in Workers’ Pay, Benefits (by Bradley Zint, Los Angeles Times)   

State Top Court Won't Hear Costa Mesa Outsourcing Appeal (by Mike Reicher, Orange County News)

Costa Mesa Embracing Public Contract Negotiations (by Lauren Jow, Orange County Register)

Contract City (by Tad Friend, The New Yorker)

Costa Mesa Rescinds Controversial Mass Layoff Plan (by Bradley Zint, Los Angeles Times)

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