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Oakland City Services Halted As Employees Hold 1-Day Strike

OAKLAND (CBS SF) -- Striking city of Oakland employees at a large rally outside City Hall Monday sought to connect their cause with the larger struggles of residents and other workers.

Most city of Oakland services stopped because of the one-day strike by unions representing 2,470 city employees. BART service has stopped entirely in a strike that could be ongoing.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021 executive director Pete Castelli likened Monday's strike to a 1946 general strike in Oakland spurred by department store clerks trying to unionize. He emphasized that cuts being fought by the union are also cuts to city services that affect residents.

Oakland's workers have been frustrated by watching the economy recover from the economic downturn, "watching the banks recover," yet still being asked for more concessions in negotiations, Castelli said.

"This is a real watershed moment for labor in Northern California," he said.

Castelli, a negotiator in the union's talks with the city, said that communication is still open between the union, Oakland and with BART.

"This is a big statement by our workers, walking off their jobs," he said, a statement he said has gotten the attention of both the city and BART.

City spokeswoman Karen Boyd said Oakland Mayor Jean Quan met with union leaders late Friday, presented an economic package that included a cost-of-living pay increase for employees -- 3.5 percent over two years -- and offered to meet with them over the weekend to avert a strike. The unions rejected the proposal and declined to meet.

Castelli said the unions didn't accept Quan's offer to bargain over the weekend because they believe her offer was "not genuine" since she hasn't participated in contract talks the past three months.

Castelli said he believes the city has only engaged in what he described as "surface and sham bargaining so far" but that he hopes the talks will become more "productive and real" when negotiations resume.

Speaking at the rally, Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 Oakland vice president Renee Sykes said that the "11th hour" proposal still included permanent cuts, which was unacceptable to the union.

City negotiators are scheduled to meet with IFPTE Local 21 this coming Friday and with SEIU Local 1021 on July 9, Boyd said.

City councilwoman Desley Brooks spoke at Monday's rally and said that there are "unanticipated revenues" that could be used to bolster salaries and benefits for the striking city workers.

She said that Quan and City Administrator Deanna Santana have been obstacles in making room in the budget for the striking workers, imploring the crowd to "let Deanna Santana and the mayor hear you."

Many of the union members criticized what they called a lack of transparency in Oakland's budget process, which led to the passage of a budget last week.

City Councilman Noel Gallo said prior to the rally that the passage of a budget before negotiations were complete was a "mistake" and showed a "lack of courtesy" to city workers.

"I truly believe they made a sacrifice years ago to balance our budget," Gallo said. "Oakland's got to get out of the scene of doing things backwards."

SEIU Local 1021 chapter president Dwight McElroy speaking at the rally accused city leaders of hiding millions in revenue from residents.

"It's our responsibility to make sure that our public dollar is spent in a manner that serves the people of Oakland," he said.

But Boyd said that the city has already committed an additional $32 million in employee compensation, including $3 million in increasing health care premiums, an $8 million increase in retirement contributions, and about $21 million from the expiration of mandatory furlough days -- a budget-cutting measure that eliminated all non-essential city services several days a year.

"Granting the unions' request in addition to the increases to which the City has already committed would swell City's cost of civilian employee compensation by $61 to 70 million, of which only $38 million was budgeted by the Oakland City Council when it passed the two-year budget last Thursday, leaving a gap of $23-32 million," Boyd said in a statement Monday afternoon.

A major theme of the unions' arguments was that cuts to city services affect not only the union members but the general population of Oakland as well, who have dwindling services to rely on.

One argument for cuts in other city services has been that Oakland needs to redirect more resources to its shrinking police force.

Attorney Dan Siegel, a former legal advisor to Quan, argued at the rally that the police force of 650 officers is enough if they are "deployed effectively."

"It's not about fighting with the cops or with the firefighters or vice-versa," Siegel said, but city leaders finding ways to bring in more revenue to adequately fund all city services.

The rally drew SEIU officials from throughout the nation -- including secretary-treasurer Eliseo Medina, who tied the fights of both the city workers and the BART employees to a larger struggle.

"Workers everywhere are standing up and saying it's time for the greedy bankers, the developers and the corporations to be held accountable," he said, "They created the crisis, they need to fix it and they need to fix it now."

(Copyright 2013 by CBS San Francisco and Bay City News Service. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed)

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