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State Negotiations: Chess or Chicken?

By Stuart A. Bussey, M.D., J.D., UAPD President

First things first. I hope that you enjoyed a well-deserved Thanksgiving holiday.

The game of chess requires clarity of mind, the ability to think ahead and effectively guess what moves your opponent will make. The same cannot be said for the game of chicken. Less reason, more nerve and resolve. Which player will blink and give in first? With over half of the twenty-one State bargaining unit negotiations stalemated, both of these games are being played by the State and by its employees right now.

UAPD started our bargaining for a new State contract in April. We were hoping for non-economic advances, and that the State’s brimming coffers would yield fair and healthy raises. The bargaining team carefully set up its proposals in a sequence designed to produce positive results. But after many simple and reasonable proposals were rejected by the State, the bargaining team came to the realization that something about this current bargaining cycle was different. Was it the new CalHR director? Governor Brown’s penchant for redistributing money to his rainy day fund or his philosophy about public union pensions? When we discovered in August that almost all of the State bargaining units were offered net pay packages that looked more like cost of living increases (COLAs), the bargaining team thought it was time to modify our game plan. We met with the other frustrated unions whose contracts had expired. We compared notes and were impressed that unions who had taken strike authorization votes (SAVs) either improved their position and/or settled their contracts (like the California Faculty Association and Stationary Engineers BU 13).

No individual or organization purposefully starts negotiating with confrontation or even veiled threats. But as in life, chess, or chicken, your opponent needs to see your spine before compromise is possible. Strikes seem to be in the air. Two thousand UNAC/AFSCME nurses were prepared to walk off their jobs at Sharp Memorial hospitals in San Diego this week. They called off the strike only after a series of last minute agreements were reached early Sunday evening.  Similarly, 95,000 state workers represented by SEIU 1000 plan a historic one day shutdown next Monday after a claim of bad faith bargaining against the State. In answer to our members’ questions, UAPD cannot honor another union’s picket line (sympathy strike) until we ourselves reach contract impasse and give adequate notice.

BU 16 union members can improve our bargaining position by voting yes in a strike authorization vote (SAV). Having such an authorization to strike gives our bargaining team more leverage and respect at the table. But make no mistake—the Governor has no time for any idle threat. If you vote in favor of a SAV then be prepared, if necessary, to back it up with action. We hope that we can settle this contract before we get to impasse or collective action. UAPD has meetings this week with the Governor’s office, CalHR and other agencies to discuss ways out of our stalemate. We plan to have more local meetings and another teleconference to discuss our progress or lack thereof.

I realize that as physicians and dentists, we didn’t envision the need for collective action against our employer. There wasn’t a doctor strike for decades before our UC student health center doctors walked out in 2014. They got a better contract for it. As you know all too well, the role of the doctor, whether in the private or public sector, has changed to that of an assembly line worker. If our employer won’t treat us with respect, then we have the duty to respect ourselves. Whether that takes the skill and will of a chess or a chicken player, so be it.