MONTHS OF TENSE negotiations between city staff and union leaders have reached an impasse, with two large worker contracts expiring as the San Jose City Council enters a July recess.

Contracts for the two unions — IFPTE Local 21 and MEF-AFSCME Local 101 — expired June 30, leaving more than 4,500 city employees in limbo with more than 1,000 vacant positions. Both unions are asking for a 7 percent salary increase for the 2023-24 fiscal year, a 6 percent increase the following year and a 5 percent increase the third year. They also want eight weeks of family leave. The city has held steady at a counteroffer of 5 percent the first year, 4 percent in the second year and 3 percent in the third year, but union leaders say that’s not good enough, and now they’re poised to strike.

Mayor Matt Mahan said City Manager Jennifer Maguire leads negotiations for San Jose with direction from councilmembers.

“That being said, my understanding is that both sides have offered their last, best and final offer, which means we are at an impasse and mediation is the next step legally,” he told San José Spotlight.

Strike foreshadowed

The South Bay Labor Council submitted a letter to councilmembers on June 29 expressing its continued disappointment in the council’s decision to recess without reaching an agreement before the contracts expired. The letter warns of a strike, which workers are prepared to do if they don’t hear from city in the coming weeks. The City Council meets again Aug. 8.

“The lack of leadership at city hall seems to be welcoming this kind of discord rather than taking meaningful steps to bring parties together and find a solution,” the letter said.

Jean Cohen, executive officer of the South Bay Labor Council,  said there has been no response to the letter, other than an out-of-office automated email reply.

“We’re going to see an entire summer where there’s going to be employees who are going to have low morale, while continuing to do the work of many.”

Jean Cohen, South Bay Labor Council

San Jose workers haven’t gone on strike in two decades. Cohen said if workers decide to strike, residents could experience slower emergency response times, fewer permits issued for projects to house the homeless, an impact on summer travel from San Jose Mineta International Airport and less staff for cleaning up trash.

She’s disappointed in city officials for not providing union leaders with more clarity during negotiations, which she said is necessary to reach an agreement.

“We’re going to see an entire summer where there’s going to be employees who are going to have low morale, while continuing to do the work of many,” Cohen told San José Spotlight.

Carolina Camarena, spokesperson for the city manager’s office, said the percent increases San Jose offered are comparable to agreements reached with other unions in the city.

“All parties are committed to the mediation process,” Camarena told San José Spotlight. “The city continues to be hopeful that tentative agreements … will be reached.”

While on recess, the City Council could call an emergency closed session to resolve negotiations, said John Tucker, MEF-AFSCME Local 101 representative.

Staff retention a top priority

David Nerhood, IFPTE Local 21 treasurer, has worked for the city transportation department for the last 22 years. He said his department has been unable to enforce parking violations due to staffing shortages, leading to increasing safety concerns and revenue loss.

His top concern moving forward is staff retention, which he said has been an issue for the last 10 years due to noncompetitive wages.

“It’s been disappointing and hurtful that we haven’t remained competitive and we continue to lose people that I would have considered excellent colleagues, maybe friends,” he told San José Spotlight.

IFPTE Local 21 is scheduled to meet with councilmembers on July 12, but union representatives said they are not hopeful the meeting will actually happen.

Nerhood said the last thing he wants to do is not work, but if he has to strike, he will.

“I love the city of San Jose,” he said. “That’s why I’ve stuck with it. But right now, I think they’re neglecting the issue.”

Contact Annalise Freimarck at [email protected] or follow @annalise_ellen on Twitter.

This story originally appeared in San Jose Spotlight.