UPDATE: This story has been edited from its previous version, which was posted earlier in the day, to reflect the postponement of the strike.
REGIONAL — A union representing nearly 600 East Bay Regional Park District (EBRPD) employees postponed a strike vote Friday after the district presented workers with a new contract proposal.
The vote — originally set to occur through 6 p.m. Monday — could be rescheduled for next week if negotiations fail, officials with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local (AFSCME) 2428 said.
The decision to postpone the strike vote followed an early morning proposal from the park district, which broke an impasse declared Thursday and moved both parties back to the table for weekend negotiations, the union said.
District officials did not respond to a request for comment.
The proposal came following a special EBRPD board meeting on Zoom and YouTube Thursday night where more than 50 employees spoke out, asking the directors to take action to spur management to increase wages they said were forcing many of them to take on second jobs or leave the district for higher-paying agencies.
Had the vote gone forward and — and should it occur next week — it could result in the district’s first employee strike in 46 years in time for Labor Day, one of its busiest park visitation days of the year. A walk-off of park rangers, naturalists, administrative staff, maintenance workers, scientists, carpenters, educators, firefighters and lifeguards would result in closures of bathrooms, visitor centers and other sites at the district's 73 parks.
Employees have worked without a contract since a previous pact expired in April.
“The workers have been asking to be brought up to what other people have been making for many years,” said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for People for East Bay Park Workers. “Meanwhile, the cost of living has increased, so some of these folks are making 20% below what their peers are at other municipal agencies.”
EBRPD board members scheduled the emergency meeting Thursday night after union officials declared an impasse following eight months of negotiations. Before heading into closed session to discuss the labor contract, the board listened to 2.5 hours of emotional testimony. Workers demanded increased pay, but also offered stories of being unable to afford the high cost of living in the Bay Area, taking second and third jobs to make ends meet, leaving for higher paying similar positions at other agencies, watching valued colleagues move on for financial reasons, and becoming overburdened with work because of unfilled positions.
Many described their love for the district and its parks, which includes 125,000 acres of parklands, 1,250 miles of trails, and 55 miles of shoreline. Residents make more than 25 million visits to the parks in Alameda and Contra Costa counties each year.
“The service we provide to the public — it can’t happen without us,” said lifeguard Justin Irwin. “A lot of people don’t want to strike. I don’t want to strike. We love the jobs we do. We love serving the public. And unfortunately we have to kind of stick to our guns. We need to stand up for ourselves and stand by what’s right. We need to be able to support ourselves and our families.”
A study commissioned by EBRPD three years ago through Ralph Andersen & Associates to address AFSCME job classifications and compensation found the district pays its workers 10% below what other people in similar jobs make in the region. The union said more than 40 positions are unfilled, overburdening the current staff, and the district in 2020 had built a $26 million surplus and had $140 million in reserves.
“It has become abundantly clear that this debate is not about if the East Bay Regional Park District can afford the union’s wage proposal,” said AFSCME 2428 President Chris Newey, who supervises park rangers at Kennedy Grove Regional Recreation Area in El Sobrante. “It’s about, ‘Are we important enough to?’ It’s about (whether) AFSCME employees are a big enough priority.”
Newey, speaking during the Thursday meeting, accused the board of preferring to pay for projects and accumulating slush funds “while your workforce struggles to pay their bills, pay their rents or their mortgages and put food on the table.”
Newey said he was barely able to send his son to community college and drove a 20-year-old car.
“We keep the parks operating,” Newey said. “We keep the folks safe. We steward the land. It’s not good enough anymore. We have waited patiently for too long. We will no longer allow you to prioritize everything else above the majority of your workforce.”
Throughout the meeting, workers addressing the board did not request pay above what counterparts make in other agencies, they asked for the region’s median while accusing board members of underpaying them and overpaying management.
“We are not asking for the moon,” said Constance Taylor, an EBRPD naturalist. “We are asking to be brought up to average, so we can continue living and working in the Bay Area.”
In the last few weeks, workers sent more than 4,000 emails to EBRPD board members in an effort to avoid a strike.
Before going into the closed session Thursday night, board member Dee Rosario thanked the speakers, calling their stories heartbreaking and eloquent.
“I appreciate your courage,” Rosario said. “Your board has heard your stories, and now it is the board’s turn to go to work.”
The district’s proposal was offered about about 12:30 a.m. Friday, the union said.