Moving backward

Union claims city salary cuts reverse hard-won gains for women and people of color

San Francisco's city budget was signed into law Aug. 4, but a group of city workers is pushing the Board of Supervisors to reverse a cut that they say reflects a giant step backward for progressive San Francisco values.

Service Employees International Union Local 1021, about 18,000 strong in San Francisco, has launched a campaign to restore pay cuts to certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and unit clerks who staff the city's medical facilities, arguing that the demotions reverse a decades-old commitment pay equity between men and women.

Proposition H, approved by voters in November 1986, enshrined the principle of comparable worth in San Francisco. It required the city to ensure that municipal jobs dominated primarily by women provided wages on par with male-dominated jobs that have similar qualifications.

Jobs held by mostly female employees also tend be staffed by people of color, so the move to create equity in pay was meant to address systemic sexism and racial discrimination. Unit clerks and CNAs seem to fit the bill, and their salaries were gradually increased after 1986.

As part of the midyear budget cuts, 88 CNAs who work at SF General Hospital were laid off and simultaneously rehired as patient care assistants, a job with similar responsibilities but only 79 percent of the salary (from an average annual salary of $56,589 down to $45,032). Another group of CNAs is scheduled for similar demotions in November. Cuts to clerical workers' wages are also pending and most will be reclassified with 15 percent less pay (from $52,845 to $45,266).

"It wipes out the advantage that they had," says Local 1021 health care industry chair Ed Kinchley. "Group by group, they're wiping out the pay differential."

"This is the first wave of an overall effort to undermine comparable worth," union organizer Robert Haaland charged in a letter to the Board of Supervisors. "We ask you to join with progressives to defend the principle of equal pay for women and minorities."

SEIU held an Aug. 7 forum to discuss the cuts at SF General, with Sups. John Avalos, David Campos, Eric Mar, and Ross Mirkarimi in attendance. CNAs and unit clerks packed the audience — a crowd that was indeed made up of many women of color.

One was Theresa Rutherford, a CNA at Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center. "We're the first ones to note when a patient is not doing well," Rutherford explained to the supervisors. "It's a job that requires a lot of commitment." She described the long hours and the bonds that develop with patients, saying CNAs are counted on by "the person who has no family members left — so you become the family member."

"Best-quality care costs," Rutherford added. "It's not cheap."

Avalos, who chairs the Budget and Finance Committee, said he was infuriated by the pay cuts. He spoke about a possible supplemental appropriation to address the issue. "We have to find the revenue for that to happen," he said. "Push as hard as you can on City Hall, and I'll fight as well."

Tom Jackson, there representing Sup. Chris Daly, also urged the workers to apply pressure. "As far as labor practices go, this is a test," he said. "You've been fighting for decades [for pay equity] ... and they're ready to wipe it away because we have a bad economy."

Department of Public Health Chief Financial Officer Gregg Sass responded to SEIU's charges by telling the Guardian: "We disagree with the SEIU comparable worth argument. Further, SEIU was not able to get member approval of a tentative agreement that might have prevented layoffs and position conversions during last fiscal year."

Supervisors added $500,000 back into the final budget to stave off some conversions.