With union and county officials at a negotiating impasse and a slew of contracts set to expire Sept. 30, L.A. County labor officials say a strike is all but inevitable.

"We are preparing for a strike and I think there is going to be a strike," said Steve Weingarten, spokesman for Local 660 of the Service Employee International Union, which represents some 40,000 county workers. "We are not going to shut down emergency rooms or put anyone's life or property at risk. But we are going to bring the county to a halt."

Local 660 is asking for a salary boost of approximately 15 percent over the next two years for thousands of office clerks, welfare workers, nurses, librarians and other employees many of whom have not received a raise for as long as six years as a result of the county's recent fiscal crisis.

The county has offered a 4.5 percent pay increase over the next three years a figure union officials deem unacceptable.

The question is whether the two parties can reach common ground before the contracts expire at the end of the month.

"Our workers have sacrificed a lot over the years that the county has been in trouble," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "They are right to be demanding a pay increase. But if they're saying, 'It's 15 percent or we strike,' then we have a strike."

Given the large number and diverse range of workers involved, negotiations between Local 660 and the county are taking place on 18 separate tracks, with union and management representatives meeting in some capacity several times a day.

Local 660 intends to turn up the heat in those talks in the week leading up to the deadline. Beginning Sept. 22, the union will begin holding daily strike preparation rallies at county facilities in each of the five supervisorial districts, according to Weingarten, in an effort to foreshadow the likely impact of a walkout.

The most visible effects of a strike would be in such high-profile departments as health services, welfare and family services. A strike also could affect businesses to some degree.

All real estate transactions, for example, must be logged with the registrar-recorder's office. The treasurer-tax collector's office is responsible for business licenses.

The county also administers parks, beaches, museums and libraries.

Despite the looming deadline and union rhetoric, Yaroslavsky expressed confidence that a strike could be avoided.

"A contract expiring is not the worst thing in the world because whatever we agree on we can easily agree to make it retroactive," he said, pointing out that county sheriff's deputies have been without a contract since January.

But the county faces mounting pressure on that front as well.

Last week, about 65 deputies did not report to work, in an apparent effort to pressure county officials to meet workers' demands. Deputies are seeking an annual raise of 5 percent. The county is offering its deputies the same 1.5 percent a year increase it has presented to the service employees union.

Local 660 last walked off the job when salary negotiations broke down in 1991. Rather than calling a general strike of all its 40,000 workers, the union then held a "rolling" strike, in which it targeted the county, department-by-department, for a month-long period before a settlement was reached.

Union officials would not say what form such an action might take this time around.

In addition to a wage increase, Local 660 also is asking for job security guarantees and worker-retraining programs both of which are of particular concern as the county prepares to overhaul two of its largest departments, health and welfare.

"We know that jobs are going to be eliminated and that there will be new kinds of jobs needed," said Bart Diener, special assistant to the general manager of Local 660. "Unless the county makes certain that the skills are updated, our people are going to be in trouble."

But union officials admit that the wage increase constitutes the most important as well as the most difficult issue to be addressed.

A double-digit increase is needed to bring wages back up to their 1993 levels, they say. Since then, inflation has eroded workers' paychecks by more than 12 percent and the county's offer of a 1.5 percent boost a year does little to close that gap.

"We will come out at the end of this contract worse than we are today," said Weingarten. "We are going to make up lost ground."

Yaroslavsky, for his part, called such demands unfair.

"It's insulting to have a group of labor unions who know how close we were to bankruptcy to now say that they want 15 percent over three years," he said. "Nobody has gotten that. I just hope that the unions don't back themselves into a corner out of which they can't extricate themselves."

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