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Tired of negotiations that have dragged on for eight months, the State Bar’s unionized employees have authorized a general strike that could paralyze the association with the possible walkout of as many as 400 of the Bar’s 500 employees. Union representative Barbara Field said Monday that members of Local 535 of the Service Employees International Union voted “overwhelmingly” Thursday in favor of a general walkout when, and if, union leaders think it’s appropriate. No specific deadline was set. “We have not been offered the step increases that we feel our people were promised at hire,” Field, a Los Angeles-based State Bar investigator, said. “We believe the budget has room in it to provide the increases, and we feel like the Bar has to make this a priority in order to recruit and retain employees to meet our statutory obligations.” Union employees, who range from receptionists to prosecutors, aren’t only upset about the proposed wage freeze. They’re also angry that Bar leaders refuse to provide retiree health benefits through the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Bar officials contend that tight economic times and minimal lawyer dues of $390 a year have forced them to stop giving step increases for the time being. And they say that funding retiree health benefits could result in an unfunded liability of $20 million two decades down the road. “Our view is that the Bar is into long-term budgeting,” Robert Hawley, the Bar’s deputy executive director and lead negotiator, said Monday. “Seventy-five percent of our costs are employee costs. We’re trying to avoid overspending now and laying off people later.” Hawley said if a walkout occurs and doesn’t end quickly, strikers could find themselves jobless. “If it drags on, the Bar’s got to staff up,” he said. “That’s a point I hope we never have to reach.” State Bar President James Herman said Monday that the threat of a strike comes at a bad time. “This is a very uncertain economy and it’s affecting the Bar in a great number of ways,” he said. “In other public sector areas, people are being laid off in large numbers and wages are being frozen. We all need to work together on this one.” The last time Bar employees walked out over labor issues was in 1986, when mostly prosecutors went on strike. Hawley said the walkout lasted for several weeks. In 1997, then-Gov. Pete Wilson, angered by what he saw as the Bar’s bloated bureaucracy and its proclivity to involve itself in political issues, vetoed the association’s annual budget. The Bar all but shut down and limped along for nine months with a skeletal staff and acres of empty rooms. If a strike comes, Hawley said, the Bar could survive for a while on its non-union staff of fewer than 100 — half of whom are executives — just as it did during the gubernatorial veto. “We’ll make sure the needs of the public and the profession are protected,” he said. Current negotiations began in July and went public in December when about 40 SEIU members packed a meeting of the State Bar Board of Governors to present their case. A federal mediator, Phyllis Case, was brought in, and the two sides have met with her several times. The next meeting was supposed to be on April 7, but union leaders, seeing what they considered to be no serious change in the State Bar’s position, called for the strike vote. “If that will inspire further offers,” Field said, “I don’t know.” Union leaders insist that Bar negotiators have provided no real proof that a wage freeze is necessary or offered any actuarial data to support their stand on retiree health benefits. Bar leaders say that’s just not true, that the information has been provided repeatedly. Both sides, however, say there has been great progress on several other, non-economic issues. For example, Hawley noted, the Bar has agreed to proposals that would reform the layoff and recall process, strengthened the alternative work schedule, improved domestic partner provisions, and provided that certain disciplinary issues will be expunged from personnel files over time.

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