You never know what will unfold at a Contra Costa County supervisors meeting. The headline on Tuesday's agenda promised to be good news -- the awarding of a state-funded Health Benefit Exchange call center, with 205 full-time jobs, to a site in Richmond or Concord.
The proposed workplaces had been meticulously researched for amenities, from proximity to public transportation to access to eateries to ambient light conditions and white noise sound "attenuation." (Government work is too demanding for anything less than ideally modulated light and sound waves.)
But before Concord and Richmond council members could puff out their chests and extol their respective cities' virtues, something else took center stage. It was an organized gripe session, with about 150 gripers in attendance.
County employees from Public Employees Union Local 1 and Professional and Technical Engineers Local 21, united by their displeasure at their compensation, worked the public comment period like tag-team wrestlers. They monopolized the microphone for nearly two hours.
I counted 41 speakers who found 41 different ways to say exactly the same thing. They were mental health counselors, civil engineers, accountants, medical technicians and midlevel managers. The faces and the voices kept changing, but the message did not. Their health care costs have risen, their salaries have gone down. They felt disrespected. It was a Rodney Dangerfield routine without
Placards waved whenever supervisors were reminded of the 2.75 percent salary cut Local 21 workers accepted in their last contract. Applause rang out when speakers demanded those cuts be erased. They overlooked only one thing.
"We don't have any money for that," Supervisor Karen Mitchoff said, explaining that the reductions were not meant to be temporary.
Employees agreed to the cuts -- and supervisors to identical ones -- to address budget shortfalls, Supervisor John Gioa said, and "save the county from further employee layoffs. We're still not out of the woods."
Maybe the venting was therapeutic. It didn't result in much else. Supervisors thanked employees for their hard work but offered no promises.
Local 21 has been in contract negotiations for about 10 months. Local 1 will warily enter them this summer. Tempers are short but not as short as funding. If there are raises, they will be modest.
When the complainathon finally ended and employees filed out of the room, the focus turned to that good news item, the call center with 205 jobs. And just as quickly, it seemed to disappear. Chairman Federal Glover said a contract impasse had sidetracked plans.
Local 512 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees rejected contract terms similar to those that other unions had accepted. In declining the conditions of employment for the 14 supervisory positions it represented, the union seemed to scrap the project.
That was before a peacemaker stepped in. State Sen. Mark DeSaulnier, a former county supervisor himself, worked out a compromise Wednesday afternoon that smoothed the waves in the latest labor showdown.
But don't be misled. One small victory doesn't hide the fact that relations between the county and its employees remain severely strained.
Contact Tom Barnidge at email@example.com.