LA County union workers walk off job to demand higher wages


About 2,500 social workers, janitors, librarians and other county workers walked off the job and took to the streets in downtown Los Angeles Tuesday, demanding higher wages after nearly five years without a pay hike.

"We are not asking for the moon, we are asking for a little bit," said Blanca Gomez, an L.A. County social worker.

The SEIU Local 721 represents about 55,000 county workers. Their contract ended at midnight with no deal. Union members marched straight to the steps of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration to voice their dissatisfaction Tuesday.

"We need them back at the table with some real responses so we can make some progress and settle this contract," said Bob Schoonover, president of SEIU Local 721.

L.A. County Chief Executive Officer William Fujioka says the current proposal on the table is a staggered 6-percent wage increase, a deal similar to one tentatively accepted by other unions representing county workers.

"People have to recognize that L.A. County is coming out of one of the worst recession that has hit this area, if not the nation, for decades. And so what we have on the table is a very responsible salary increase," said Fujioka.

But union representatives deny any such proposal has been offered.

"Let's be clear here: We have not been offered a 6-percent raise," said Schoonover. "We have been offered a 4-percent raise at the table and they haven't offered to pick up anything on the health care."

Another sticking point is hiring more workers. Many county workers were laid off and now union members want those jobs to be replaced.

"The working conditions are not conducive to child safety. We need have more social workers on the line," said Blanca Gomez.

Unions members say they would strike if they had to. But the county says they are confident a contract will be drafted that will satisfy both parties.

"I think the focus right now is active and fair negotiations," said Fujioka. "That's what we are doing today."

About half of the roughly 55,000 SEIU local union members earn $40,000 a year or less, according to SEIU spokesman Lowell Goodman, but the county spokesman cited the average salary at $53,800 per year.

Workers will be back on the job on Wednesday.

Grand Avenue was temporarily closed between First and Fourth streets to accommodate the march.

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