Oakland city employees rally amid stalled contract talks. They have been working without a new contract since the end of June and are preparing a strike vote. (Photo courtesy of SEIU Local 1021)

About 500 Oakland city employees staged a rally in front of City Hall recently to protest what they say are alarming staff vacancy rates in city departments.

The rally by members of Service Employees International Union Local 1021 and International Federation of Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21 occurred in the midst of lengthy talks between the unions and the city for a new contract.

Felipe Cuevas, a city heavy equipment mechanic who is president of SEIU Local 1021’s Oakland chapter, said the talks began in January but have bogged down.

Calvin Hao, the president of IFPTE Local 21, said his union were preparing for three days of fact-finding with the city.

Collectively the two unions represent 3,000 city workers in Oakland, including engineers, librarians, planners, transportation and public works staff, street paving and cleaning crews, 911 dispatchers, neighborhood service coordinators, housing services staff, and Head Start program coordinators.

The unions and the city failed to reach an agreement before the unions’ previous contract expired on June 30, and city workers are still working under its terms. The unions have scheduled a strike authorization vote for Oct. 22-24.

The unions said they filed unfair labor practice charges against the city, alleging that the city sent retaliatory emails threatening layoffs and prematurely declaring an impasse in the middle of bargaining. Cuevas said about 600 city positions are unfilled even though they are already funded.

“That’s 600 people who are not filling Oakland’s potholes, preventing residents from getting evicted, paving streets or helping our homeless population,” he said.

Cuevas said the two unions are seeking a cost-of-living increase of about 4 percent a year but the city is only offering a 2 percent raise.

“The city talks about having to deal with the cost of inflation but when it comes to its own employees, it doesn’t want to hear about it,” he said.

Hao said, “The city touts how well it’s doing, but when it comes to its employees they try to union bust.”

He said city workers will have a hard time being able to afford to live in Oakland if they only get a small raise.

Cuevas said U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic nomination for president in 2020, sent a tweet offering his support to Oakland city workers.

In his tweet, Sanders said, “I stand with the 3,000 SEIU 1021 and IFPTE Local 21 public servants fighting to provide quality city services to the residents of Oakland. It’s unacceptable that 600 positions are currently unfilled.”

In a statement, city spokeswoman Karen Boyd said, “The City of Oakland has focused on four key goals during labor negotiations: secure long-term health benefits for employees, offer a fair wage increase that is within the existing budget, speed the hiring process, and ensure we can deliver critical services to our community now and into the future. The city has proposed no changes to key benefits or civil service rights.

“We recognize the impact that vacancies have on departmental operations and have asked the unions to partner with us in speeding up the hiring process to fill vacancies more quickly. The city has proposed minor modifications to unnecessarily restrictive and time-consuming processes that delay hiring and slow our efforts to fill vacancies in a timely manner. These proposed modifications are in line with best practices in other public agencies. So far both unions have flatly rejected those proposals,” Boyd said.