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Unionized State Bar employees on Wednesday approved a proposed contract that could end nine months of intense labor negotiations and prevent a possible walkout by as many as 400 employees. But State Bar management warned that the agreement — which could cost the association roughly $800,000 more in salaries this year alone — could force some layoffs. “We could, through attrition and limited layoffs, achieve the salary savings necessary to offset that, and bring labor peace,” Robert Hawley, the State Bar’s deputy executive director and chief management negotiator, said. Union representative Robin Haffner, a deputy trial counsel in San Francisco, could not provide the exact vote Wednesday, but said union members — ranging from secretaries to prosecutors — approved a management offer that includes step increases of 2.5 percent this year and next, and continues a study into the possible provision of retiree health benefits. “This is less than what the employees were certainly looking for,” said Haffner, the attorney unit representative. “But we have accepted management’s last, best and final [offer] . . . due to the hard economic times that are generally facing everybody.” To become effective, the proposal must be ratified by the State Bar Board of Governors, which meets Wednesday in San Francisco. “The board has the independent responsibility to review this,” and they could accept it or reject it, Hawley said. Members of Local 535 of the Service Employees International Union have clashed with Bar management since July over the Bar’s refusal to provide retiree health benefits through the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, and a proposal to freeze step increases this year and possibly beyond. Management had blamed tough economic times on the proposed freeze, and had argued that retiree health benefits could confront the Bar with a $20 million unfunded liability within two decades. Haffner said the Bar appeased the union with its approval of the 2.5 percent step increases — half of the yearly norm — and a promise to reopen negotiations in 2004. The union backed off the health benefits issue, she said, after the Bar agreed to continue a joint management-employee study committee that will meet once a month and make a recommendation in October. Hawley said the step increases are “above and beyond what’s budgeted,” which is the reason layoffs could become necessary.

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