Harbor management and dredge operator dispute to be heard by state
Resident Jim Riley joined the dredge operating crew at the Santa Cruz Harbor when he was 17 years old in 1985. That career abruptly halted on July 1, 2011 after negotiations between his union—Operating Engineers Local 3 (OE3)—and the Santa Cruz Port District (SCPD) fell apart on June 29. The dispute was over the SCPD’s demand that the dredge operators increase contributions to their benefits by about $2,000 per worker.
The decision to let the crew, which had maintained the harbor sea floor for 25 years, go was a purely financial decision, according to SCPD Director Lisa Ekers.
“The district values all its employees and we have long had a good relationship with the operating engineers,” Ekers says. “This has nothing to do with our relationship with the operating engineers [or unions].”
The harbor paid $673,000 for dredge operators’ salary and benefits in fiscal year 2012, which ended in March. That is a 55 percent increase since 2001. Nearly every department at the harbor has seen budget cuts since Ekers became director in 2010. Riley, however, says it was more about breaking their union.
“It is all part of an anti-union movement that is growing all over [the country],” says Riley. “I think the SCPD has been pretty liberal and pro-union in the past. If they can do this to us, then any union can be broken.”
Also over the past fiscal year, the SCPD’s administration budget grew to $660,000 from the $527,000 allocated in the draft budget approved in early 2011. Ekers says that jump reflects one-time costs for legal fees and consultants because of the tsunami aftereffects that rolled through the harbor on March 11, 2011. She says when the final budget documents are filed, some of these costs may be transferred to other departments.
Ekers received a 2 percent pay raise on Oct. 20, 2011, bringing her current salary to $114,444 per year plus a $250 monthly gas allowance. The raise approval, written and signed by Ekers, was in accordance with her original contract.
This is an issue OE3 representative Dave Harrison will bring up when talks resume in a settlement conference before the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) sometime in May. On March 21, PERB announced they would hear the case in which OE3 claims that the SCPD “failed to negotiate in good faith” with the dredging crew. This means they found enough evidence of unfair labor practices to hear the case, according to Harrison.
Ekers counters that the documents simply acknowledged that a formal complaint was filed, but gives no indication to how the case will be decided.
Getting back to the job he has done for more than half of his life is the top priority for Riley. He and his four fellow OE3 crewmembers are now also demanding back pay for the eight months they would have spent working.
“I want to be paid for my experience and what I know I am worth,” he says. “I understand the economy is bad right now and everyone is cutting budgets, so I’m not trying to milk [the district].”
When he joined his father on the crew, the operation was being run by outside contractor Peter Kiewit Sons, Inc. The next year the SCPD bought the dredge from that company and began overseeing the operating engineers. Riley says this long relationship with dredging, the knowledge that the old crew had, and even the crane itself were lost when he and the others left last year. He says that that could end up costing the harbor more in the long run.
“We had built a kit of tools and knowledge that allowed us to take care of her,” says Riley of the harbor. “I see this new crew—who are harbor maintenance employees—are abusing her and they don’t know how to take care of her.”
He estimates that removing the dredge crane from the water for major repairs could cost more than $1.5 million. Santa Cruz Commercial Fisherman’s Association President Joe Stoops agrees that the harbor made the wrong choice in replacing the crew. As of this writing, most fishing boats could not get through the harbor mouth because March and April storms had clogged the area with silt. Stoops claims the new crew is working “for their paycheck and not the [quality] of the job.”
“When conditions are bad, they don’t work,” he says. “Then when it clears up they say it’s their day off and they don’t work.”
The 2011-2012 winter was one of the driest on record and Stoops worries the new crew doesn’t have the experience or work ethic to do the job during a wetter season.
“They had a very lucky, mild winter and they are still having a hard time keeping up with the job,” says Stoops. “There is more sand shoaled up at the entrance now than there’s been since the ’70s.”
Ekers says no complaints about the new crew have been filed with her office, and that no boats have docked in other harbors for reasons related to dredging. Stoops, however, says that the harbor is not being run as a viable hub for commercial fishing.
“This is not being run as a productive harbor,” he says. “Right now it’s more of a storage unit for sailboats.”
The Chardonnay II charter sailboat has also felt the economic impact of the new dredge crew’s lack of experience. The boat charters groups up to 49 people around the Monterey Bay for $49 per person. They have had to cancel several trips because the dredge was damaged at least three times during the last month, according to Chardonnay II front office manager Tavia Avila.
The PERB conference is closed to the public and harbor tenants, but Stoops says his organization will be following what happens.
Letters of support from county, state and federal officials will also be part of the union’s leveraging in the hearing. Santa Cruz County Supervisor Mark Stone, who also serves on the California Coastal Commission, wrote the following to the Santa Cruz Port Commission on Jan. 31:
“For over 25 years … the members of Local 3 … have proven themselves a highly skilled and extremely reliable dredging crew capable of working in the most extreme weather conditions.”
He also sympathizes with the need to reduce costs in the current economy but writes that “to dismiss a team of professionals who know how to meet the complex economic, engineering and environmental challenges of dredging makes little sense.”
Ekers hopes that the SCPD and the OE3 crew can come to a compromise at the PERB settlement conference, but declined to speculate further.
Photos: Keana Parker