SACRAMENTO — Thousands of protesting employees from the state's largest union, working without a contract since June and pay increases since 2003, threatened Monday to strike if they do not get a deal worth hundreds of millions of dollars from deficit-plagued California.

"I'm ready to strike" was the mantra of the day at a Capitol rally, both from union officials and members. A strike would affect government services of all kinds across the state.

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's aides declined to comment on the 87,000-member union's strike-authorizing vote, scheduled for Monday. But administration officials said they are ready to begin negotiating with the group May 22, when the union said it was ready.

The union is waiting for both its own strike vote and Schwarzenegger to formally revise his proposed budget Friday for fiscal 2006-07, which begins July 1. There are no funds for state employee wage hikes in his current budget plan.

"This is about power and how much pressure can we put on the governor to do the right thing," said Cathy Hackett, vice president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000.

"We're here today to pressure the governor to include $400 million in his revised budget to fund our contract," she said.

Schwarzenegger spokeswoman Margita Thompson said the state "is willing, ready and able to meet with SEIU 1000 to reach a settlement and secure a contract.


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" Early last year, union officials said, the governor demanded takeaways of as much as 14 percent in benefits and offered no wage increase, according to the union.

The last contract between the state and the union — whose members range from librarians and cooks to tax collectors and teachers — expired June 30. The last wage increase came July 1, 2003.

Since that time, union officials said the cost of living has increased by more than 10 percent.

Complicating the situation is what union officials described as Schwarzenegger's anti-union special election last year and the current election-year politics.

Union officials said most of its members are the lowest-paid of all state employees, with an average annual salary of $43,000. A third of the members on average earn $32,000 a year or less.

The situation has led to short staffing and declining services in such areas as veterans' homes and youth correctional facilities, the union said.

In addition, there are only five inspectors for 1,600 miles of levees and 1,400 miles of designated floodways in the state. And applicants for state disability benefits have to wait as long as a year for action on their claims.

"We are prepared to go to the mat for a fair contract," said Marc Bautista, vice president for organizing and representation. "I'm ready to strike."

Contact Sacramento Bureau Chief Steve Geissinger at sgeissinger@angnewspapers.com.

''We are prepared to go to the mat for a fair contract. I'm ready to strike."

Marc Bautista,

VICE-PRESIDENT FOR ORGANIZING AND REPRESENTATION