Service coordinators for the San Andreas Regional Center (SARC), which oversees services to nearly 16,000 developmentally disabled people in Santa Cruz, San Benito and Santa Clara counties, protested a proposed 16 percent labor cut Tuesday morning outside the organization's Campbell, Watsonville, and Salinas offices.
The service coordinators, who are unionized under the Service Workers International Union (SEIU), said Tuesday's picketing is likely to be followed by a labor strike.
The protest, which in Campbell saw as many as 100 picketers, and dozens in Watsonville and Salinas, come as an escalation to already tense negotiations over the large cut to salaries.
Robert Avery, director of finance and administration for SARC, spoke for the upper management when he said "we are in active negotiations, we had our most recent session with them last Wednesday, and there has been movement from both sides in the talks. Our next session is the next Thursday of this month, and we are confident we are going to reach a mutually benficial contract."
Picketers worried, however.
"I might have to retire,'' said Helan Behar, 61, of Santa Cruz, who was worked there 20 years. "I hate to think that way, but if I can't afford to work here anymore, what choice do I have?"
The budget cuts were proposed after a 2011 state audit found that SARC service coordinators were working on too many cases at once. Some carry as many as 125 cases, while the mandated maximum is 62.
But service coordinators claim ongoing mismanagment and a hiring freeze to explain the violation in case loads.
"We have been out of compliance for seven years. I don't know why they are choosing now to make the cuts, " said Dan Edigar, 47, who has been a service coordinator at SARC for 7 years.
According to Ediger and other union members, the budget cuts are intended to drive out older, more experienced workers to be replaced by younger workers who would work for a lower wage.
"It's going to take people with a ton of experience, who know how to help people, and force them to leave, and then these new social workers are going to come in on cut salaries, and they don't have any experience," Ediger said.
Ediger said he feared the cuts would be worst for SARC clients.
"If we don't act, they could loose their benefits, they could become homeless, they could loose their vouchers." Ediger said. "We deal with courts, and people in jail, if they shouldn't be there, we intervene."
Of the 21 statewide regional offices, the San Andreas branch is the only one that faces cuts of this magnitude, and the only one that threatens a strike.
Behar said the disagreement has begun to feel personal.
"We are a human services agency, and they are treating us so inhumanly," Behar said. "You can't just have someone walking in off the street doing this work. They are really just treating us disrespectfully, they aren't respecting our expertise or our education."
Ediger said he didn't want to strike, but considered it necessary to ensure they provide their clients with quality service.
"Our hope lies in our actions. The more we act the more hope I have. We want to be measured; If they are reasonable, we will be reasonable. But we are determined."
If SEIU workers do strike, it will come at a time when unionized labor stoppages have become exceedingly rare. There were only 19 organized labor strikes in 2011 in the United States, according to this article by National Public Radio, a dramatically lower number than in the 1970s and 1980s, when thousands of workers went out on hundreds of strikes.