SM courthouse hit hard by strike

– Day two of the strike of nearly 600 county court workers
continues to severely disable the county court system today, and
neither side of the labor dispute is offering much insight as to
when it will be settled.
SAN MARTIN – Day two of the strike of nearly 600 county court workers continues to severely disable the county court system today, and neither side of the labor dispute is offering much insight as to when it will be settled.

Outside the South County court facility in San Martin this morning, more than 20 courtroom reporters, court clerks, mediators, administrative clerks and judges’ assistants held large signs proclaiming allegiance to their union. With the Beach Boys blaring in the background, picketers shook plastic noise makers, marched in a large circle and followed a bullhorn leading cadence of “Kiri Torre got a raise, spend our money other ways.” Torre is the Superior Court’s chief executive officer; she received a 7.5 percent pay raise in December – the largest increase possible.

Because of its small size, the South County courthouse has been one of the hardest hit facilities – more than 90 percent of its 30 state-paid employees are on strike. San Martin was only operating its traffic court as of 11 a.m., while both the criminal and civil departments of the court – along with the accounting and clerk’s office – have been shut down since early Monday. Only two of the 11 other court facilities in the county shut down Monday.

“The courts certainly aren’t operating at normal capacity,” said Dave Tompkins, a deputy district attorney for Santa Clara County. “It’s hard right now to get a grasp on how this will affect the court system in the long-term – it’s going to be very backed up for a while.”

The first break in the stalemate negotiations between the Superior Court and its employees came Monday afternoon, when San Mateo County Superior Judge Joseph Bergeron ordered 13 court reporters to return to work Tuesday morning. One of those reporters will be in San Martin, a facility that normally uses three reporters. The court had requested 59 workers be mandated back to work.

The injunction filed Monday morning claimed the courtroom reporters are needed to cover essential, time-sensitive cases that affect public safety – including three murder trials, according to Isobel White, spokeswoman for Local 715 of the Service Employees International Union, which is representing the court workers.

Court managers and supervisors filled in for striking clerks to file paperwork and hold arraignments Monday, but the absence of the highly specialized court reporters forced more serious hearings and trials to be delayed. Three courtroom reporters did cross the picket line Monday along with an estimated 50 other court employees, but the reporters forced to go to work today plan to be back on the picket line Wednesday, White said.

There is no official time estimate when the dispute will be settled, and court officials have not contacted the union since the strike began, White said. Court spokeswoman Debra Hodges did not return phone calls for this story by deadline.

The union’s last court strike in the Santa Clara County was in 1975; it lasted 17 days.

“This does not look good,” said Bill Bryie, scanning the scene as he was entering the San Martin court house Tuesday morning to plead not guilty to a traffic ticket he received in Morgan Hill. Bryie had driven from his home in Arcata for the hearing.

“I drove nine hours for this; I had no idea about the strike,” he said, shaking his head. “This is not good.”

The disagreement between the employees and the court centers largely on salary. Local 715 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 first year.

Tensions began to boil when the court workers’ contract expired 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 Monday.

A major barrier in the contract dispute resolves around a change in law three 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 already have 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.

“The San Mateo County court workers just got a 14 percent raise over four years and the county workers got a 6 percent raise,” said Nancy Pruitt, a striking court clerk who lives in Gilroy and has worked at the South County facility for 13 years. “We want justice and equal pay for our work – it’s expensive to live in this part of the state. Right now we need to be out here for as long as it takes to make it happen, obviously we are making an impact on the system.”

For information about court dates during the strike go to The Superior Court has also set up a hotline at 299-2555 for updates on the labor situation, or for jury duty information call 277-0720.