California union demands 43% raises, rejects Gavin Newsom’s ‘pitiful’ contract offer

Hundreds of scientists employed by the state of California voted to reject a tentative labor contract by a margin of 59% to 41%, sending a message to the Newsom administration and union leadership that the raises proposed in that offer were unacceptable.

The California Association of Professional Scientists, the union representing these workers, announced the vote results Thursday after receiving them from a third-party agency charged with the count. Two-thirds of the 2,744 workers eligible to vote did so, said Jackqueline Tkac, the bargaining team chair, showing management that workers are highly engaged.

“We’re going to hopefully resume negotiations at the bargaining table in the next couple weeks,” Tkac said. “Over the last year, we really focused on organizing the membership, and we’ll continue to do that. And we’re also going to look to build solidarity with other labor unions and do whatever is needed to win a fair contract.”

Leaders of the California Department of Human Resources declined to comment on the results.

This labor unit has been without a contract since July 2020. They have demanded raises of 43%, citing pay inequities dating back to 2005. Such a number would seem lofty even in good times. Does Tkac think it’s possible as the governor and the legislature are undertaking austere measures amid concerns about a budget shortfall?

“Every governor says in hard times that there’s no money for salaries, and in good times, even in a really good time when we have a historic budget surplus, they say hard times are coming,” Tkac said. “Unfortunately, we’ve been hearing versions of those arguments for nearly two decades. This isn’t about moving numbers around on the Department of Finance spreadsheet or waiting for the right time. It’s about letting the decision makers know that we can no longer accept the way we’ve been treated. We can’t accept this inequity to continue for another decade.”

In the proposed offer, all the scientists would have received wage increases of 2% in 2023 and 2024, but the state also offered special salary adjustments based on job classification.

Scientists in about 70 different job classifications, representing 87% of the unit, would have gotten a special adjustment of 4% of pay if the deal had been approved. The largest adjustment, 10%, would have gone to a tiny number of individuals working in veterinary and plant science classifications The smallest adjustment, 2.5%, would have gone to 12% of scientists in the unit.

These scientists perform such vital functions as protecting public health and the environment, securing the food supply, addressing climate change and ecosystem loss, and developing green energy.

Ahead of the vote, Tkac told The Sacramento Bee that the state had a lot of work yet to do when it comes to addressing pay equity.

Scientists rejected offer in 2014

Although it’s rare for state employee unions to reject tentative agreements, the state scientists also rejected a proposed offer from the Brown administration in 2014. As members considered the most recent contract proposal, an anonymous website popped up criticizing California Gov. Gavin Newsom and telling members: “Reject the state’s pitiful offer. Vote no!”

The union has argued its environmental scientists are grossly underpaid when compared with state engineers who do much of the same work but have benefited from larger pay increases. The scientists also have condemned leaders at the CalHR for including management and supervisor pay when calculating the average pay of workers in their unit.

“For many years, we have challenged the method and the conclusions that the state has come to that we believe inaccurately look at our bargaining unit and its pay inequities,” Tkac said in December. “If we can’t agree on the data that’s being used to determine what they believe is an appropriate salary range for our classifications in our union, then it’s difficult really to agree on anything else.“

‘Like pay for like work’

The part that grates most for scientists is that their supervisors garnered hefty pay increases of 18% to 43% in 2014 after the union waged a court battle on their behalf, arguing that the state of California had violated its own “like pay for like work” when it came to the engineers’ raises. While the supervisors walked away with wage gains, the rank-and-file did not.

On Thursday, union officials said the state scientists’ wages have lagged behind their peers in similar state, local and federal positions by 30% or more for decades. Consequently, they said, turnover has increased in their positions as scientists gain experience and then leave for positions where they can earn more.

The tentative deal had provided a way to resolve the pay issues through new labor-management committees that would have studied which data should be considered when calculating average salaries, but Tkac had expressed frustration that CalHR, the agency charged with assuring wage equity, had not already done this work.

In addition to wage equity, the union also wants cost-of-living compensation for members in California’s most expensive regions and “longevity pay” that will encourage the most experienced scientists to continue working for the state.

Until a new labor agreement is approved, union members will continue to work under the provisions of their expired contract.