A look at what the city strikers are going through

By: Carol Feineman, Editor
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Last week’s front-page story on the 36 striking city public-services employees quickly hit a nerve. We had 36 online comments within 20 hours of posting the story on our website. Most of our stories attract just a handful of comments. The story was about workers striking because of city-demanded salary and benefit concessions they say will leave them with not enough money to support their families. The majority of online comments did not take their side. We reported last week that an International Union of Operating Engineers Local 39 district representative said employees make an average of $3,500 to $4,000 a month and were looking at a $350 to $400 monthly pay cut through concessions. Some readers say that salary is twice what they make. But several public-service strikers outside City Hall last Thursday said their salaries are much lower. “A lot of people think we make a lot of money,” Jesse Corral said. “A lot of us make $15 to $17 an hour. There has been no merit increases in the four years I’ve been here. People should be a little more open-minded and do a little research. Just because we’re union doesn’t mean we make a lot. We work really hard at minimal staffing.” Brian Button, one of Lincoln’s three sewer technicians and a group steward for the negotiations, sadly recited some of the more severe online reader criticism. “The perception of the public is we make a lot. It’s not true,” Button said. “People say we make $50,000 to $80,000. That’s unbelievable. We make $30,000 to $40,000.” Proposed concessions would hurt Button’s family, he said. Button said his paycheck is $900, which equals $1,800 a month, after child support is taken out. “The city wants to take $400 to $500 a month out between medical and retirement concessions,” Button said. “We’re frustrated. A lot of the workers are forced to strike because they won’t be able to support their families.” Button has four children between the ages of 6 and 16. Bottom line, Button is an involved Lincoln resident. He’s a parks and recreation advisory committee member and his children play soccer and are 4-H members here. City officials, though, say the concessions are necessary. City Manager Jim Estep told The News Messenger this week that the concessions will help keep the city fiscally responsible Tom Andrews said he is striking because his family needs health insurance. Andrews, with the city five years as a wastewater technician, did not want to stand outside City Hall during the workweek. “I love the city,” Andrews said. “It’s hard being here (picketing).” But Andrews has “two new babies” so health insurance is a significant benefit. “We respond to residents with sewer problems within 30 minutes,” said Matt Reynolds, a sewer worker since October 2003. “We operated a four-man crew for over five or six years. We’ve been operating a three-man crew for the last two years. I think we do a pretty good job. We’re not overpaid, disgruntled employees.” The online comments also disappointed Reynolds. “It makes me feel they’re ungrateful of what we do,” Reynolds said. “We get out in the middle of the night, in storms. By comparison, Roseville has 24 sewer workers, Folsom has 12 and we have 3.” During the Aug. 23-24 propane tanker fire, when a catastrophic BLEVE (Boiling Liquid Expanding Vapor Explosion) was a possibility, public-services employees volunteered their services. They helped with road closures, traffic control, brought in and emptied extra garbage bins at the command center and shelters, and made sure vehicles were working, for example, potentially risking their own safety. The workers are on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year, several of the strikers added. Corral, a solid-waste driver, grew up in Lincoln. “We love this town. We love our jobs. We love the people,” Corral said. “We’ll willing to pay our SDI, PERS (Public Employees’ Retirement System) and part of our medical. But the city is not willing to negotiate fairly and in good faith,” Corral said. “Their Last, Best and Final Offer was worse than the first agreement. Everyone here (picketing) wants to go back to work. We want to bargain fairly.” Corral pointed out that public-service salaries are paid from enterprise funds. “We don’t affect the General Fund. We create our own revenue through (enterprise) sewer, water and garbage fees. We are in the black.” Button, too, wants to go back to the bargaining table. “We do want to take concessions. We just don’t want the big hit,” Button said. “We’ll covering the rest of PERS; we’re giving up SDI but the 90-10 final on medical, we’d be happy with 95 –5 for medical.” “I’d like to tell Lincolnites that we live paycheck to paycheck. We don’t drive good vehicles,” Button said. “Two weeks ago (at the tanker fire), we were all heroes. With the minimal staffing that we have, I think that all of our services show for themselves.”