Underscoring a weak bargaining position, unionized janitors at two county-owned hospitals have failed in a bid to bring their contract in line with counterparts in the public sector.

The effort by 250 members of the Service Employees International Union to increase their hourly wage to the $16 paid to other members of the same union failed when many workers at Harbor/UCLA Medical Center in Torrance and Olive View/UCLA Medical Center in Sylmar refused to walk off the job when union leadership called a strike last month.

The five-year contract eventually agreed to by the workers, ratified by an 87-42 vote, will increase their average $9.40 hourly pay by 2.7 percent during the first year with no increase in the $1.14-per-hour employer contribution to the health care plan and no pension benefits.

Union officials said there is no guarantee that the janitors will receive raises during the last four years of the contract.

"The reality is we had to get what we could in the short time we could keep people on the strike lines," said David Huerta, division coordinator for building services at SEIU's Local 1877. "Because of the low wages that workers make, it makes it more difficult for them to be able to engage in a strike."

That reality also brought out only 129 workers to the Dec. 21 ratification meeting, even though the union set up five voting locations throughout the county as a convenience.

The SEIU claims 1.7 million members nationwide and is one of the largest unions in the country. It represents 250,000 janitors, public and private hospital workers, local government employees, home care workers and non-teaching public school staff in L.A. County. But the janitors at Harbor/UCLA and Olive View/UCLA are under contract to Monterey Park-based Pedus Service and are not county employees.

Keeping out

To date, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors has not sought to exert its influence to bring the Pedus cleaners up to par with county employees by either entering the negotiations or bringing the workers onto the county payroll.

"Why would they want to?" said Joel Bellman, spokesman for Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "We have enough problems dealing with our own unions and contract talks."

At the supervisors meeting Jan. 18, Department of Health Services officials projected their deficit for the fiscal year ending June 30, 2009, would reach $1.3 billion. This is on top of the nearly $2.4 billion the federal government has given the county to bail out its health care system since September 1995. The state also put up a $300 million matching grant in 2000.

A $60.9 million five-year contract (that includes a county option on a six-month extension) between Pedus and the county was approved by supervisors Aug. 10 and became effective Sept. 1. It calls for Pedus to provide janitorial services at 15 county health care and administrative facilities, including the two hospitals cleaned by Local 1877 workers.

"Our contract is for Pedus to provide services to the county," said Bellman. "Beyond that, it's a labor-management issue within the company. Just because we negotiate a contract with benefit changes with our employees doesn't mean that it applies to employees of our contractors."

Enio Martinez, general manager for Pedus, did not return calls.

The only bright news for the janitors is that county officials are working to combine their health plan with the one shared by thousands of SEIU homecare workers to get more coverage on the dollar.

Huerta said the $1.14 per hour employer health care contribution for janitors is significantly lower than the $2.72 per hour he estimates adequate health care coverage would cost. In the end, he said, the county is hurting itself along with the janitors.

"These workers are going to wind up in their emergency rooms or operating rooms as the uninsured," he said. "So the county will have to pay for them anyway."

None of this bodes well for the janitors. The lack of interest in taking to the picket lines disappointed union leadership and underscored how vulnerable and easily replaced low-skilled workers are.

"It's against what we expect of the membership," Huerta said of members who refused to picket. "But as a union, we can't coerce anybody into engaging in a strike. It's a voluntary action."

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