Courthouse strike shuts down county justice

Court workers wave at honking cars in front of the Halls of

– A strike by approximately 650 county court workers beginning
this morning closed the South County branch at 10:30 a.m and
created a logistical nightmare in the dozens of justice halls
throughout the county.
SAN MARTIN – A strike by approximately 650 county court workers beginning this morning closed the South County branch at 10:30 a.m and created a logistical nightmare in the dozens of justice halls throughout the county.

The Santa Clara County Superior Court in San Martin was one of the first three facilities in the county to shut down due to the strike, while others continued operating would-be hearings without courtroom reporters, court clerks, mediators, administrative clerks and judges’ assistants as of 11 a.m.

In San Martin and San Jose, court workers created a carnival atmosphere outside the courts, chanting pro-union slogans, shaking plastic noise makers and holding signs reading “Justice for Court Workers” and “The Court Needs Us, We Need a Raise.”

Inside the courtrooms, judges asked attorneys for permission to proceed with hearings without the recorded transcript usually provided by a reporter, and court managers acted as emergency clerks and researchers.

There is no official time estimate when the dispute will be settled, and court officials were unable to be contacted for this story by deadline.

“We just want a decent raise,” said David Winters, one of about 15 striking court workers outside the San Martin court building this morning. Winters, who has worked as a criminal court reporter in San Martin for five years, urged citizens going into the court building to demand their business in the court get taken care of today. “We’ll be out here until it’s settled.”

The disagreement that needs to be settled centers largely on salary. Local 715 Service Employees International Union, which represents court workers, is asking for a 6 percent annual raise for court workers, while Superior Court officials are offering 2.5 percent in the first year of a three-year contract that would contain no raises after the initial year.

Tensions began to boil when the court workers’ contract expired on Oct. 28 and the 650 union members voted by a 93 percent margin to reject the courts’ new contract offer. Numerous negotiation attempts since then have failed, leading the court workers to take up the picket line today.

A major barrier in the contract dispute revolves around a change in law several years ago in which Superior Court employees started being funded by the state, not the county. With the dismal state of the California budget, officials have already cut Superior Court jobs in several counties, and the courts and court workers’ unions in Santa Cruz and San Mateo counties recently agreed on new contracts on the eve of potential strikes.

“It was really incredible today, people were lost in the court house, just milling in the hallways,” said Stephen Benitzhar, a San Jose attorney who showed up at the San Jose Hall of Justice this morning for three of his clients’ cases, all of which got delayed. “It’s chaos in there right now – this can’t go on more than a week.”

Benitzhar said he was disappointed with his morning hearings because the delays created by the strike meant that one of his clients had to remain in county jail until the strike was over and a hearing could be conducted and another was unable to have the warrant for her arrest cleared.

“It’s frustrating because it affects all of us,” he said. “But I know many of these people out here, and I empathize with them.”

While court officials have stated in recent weeks and during negotiations that state budget cuts have eliminated any possibility of raises for court employees, the workers aren’t buying it.

Local 715 members protesting outside the Hall of Justice in San Jose this morning said the court just purchased millions of dollars worth of new furniture, judges’ chambers, phones and computers. They also point to the fact that Kiri Torre, Superior Court’s chief executive officer, received a 7.5 percent pay raise in December – the largest legal wage increase possible, bringing her salary to $182,000, and that Superior Court judges recently received a 4.8 percent pay increase.

“We have had all kinds of attorneys and interpreters and others tell us they are in our court – one attorney bought us 200 donuts this morning,” said Cindy Johnson, a court reporter in San Jose who has worked at various county court facilities for more than 18 years. “I’ve never had to strike before, but this is the only way we can be heard. I think it will take a few days, but I’m confident we will work something out. … We want to get back to work for justice, but first we need to get some justice ourselves.”