After Worker Strike Threat, East Bay Regional Park District Raises Wages

East Bay Parks Workers (from left to right) Chris Newey, Erdem Durgunoğlu, Mary Brown, Sergio Huerta, Anja Brey and Ross Mitchell stand in Tilden Park on May 19. Photo courtesy of People for East Bay Parks Workers.

Following threats of a worker strike over labor day weekend, the around 600 workers with the East Bay Regional Park District came to a tentative agreement with the district’s board and management on Tuesday that raises salaries, putting all workers at or just above median wages for such similar jobs in the region.

“I’m feeling not only elated and exhilarated but also really tired,” said Sergio Huerta, a park supervisor and fire fighter who has worked with the district for over 30 years. “I’m really proud of the work that we’ve all done.”

Starting about eight months ago, workers had been negotiating with the district through their union, AFSCME 2428, to raise salaries. Huerta said the struggle was hard and long, adding 12–16 extra hours to his work week. During a press conference on Tuesday, a naturalist with the district named Melissa Fowlks said “getting to fair equitable compensation has been a mountain of a struggle.” But park workers felt they had much to gain, because their previous contract had them making a lower salary than they felt was fair.

“I love my job, but I don’t want to have to choose between my job and providing for my family,” said Pia Loft in an interview several days before workers announced their win. “I want respect and I want fair pay.”

Loft is an educator with the district who is raising two children.

While parks workers fulfill a vast array of jobs to maintain and improve the park and its community including education, fire fighting, life guarding, and accounting, almost all park workers take home a lower salary than those doing similar jobs in the area. According to a report Ralph Andersen & Associates released in 2019 that analyzed the salaries of 37 different park positions, 34 of these positions make less than the median salary for similar jobs in the region and seven make over 20% less than the regional median salary. On average, parks workers make 10% less than the median regional income.

Workers say the low salaries cause people to leave the district which has resulted in vacancies in over 40 positions. Loft said if these positions were filled, visitors would likely see an improvement in park services including cleaner bathrooms, visitor centers that are open longer hours, and more educational and volunteer opportunities. Huerta keeps hearing stories about workers leaving the district because of the low salaries. One of Huerta’s close friends recently told him he is leaving the district for a better paying job.

“It hurts because these are really good people who are dedicated to their work,” he said.

Parks worker Sergio Huerta at Tilden Park on May 19th. Photo courtesy of People for East Bay Parks Workers.

But the workers’ recent win will improve salaries, which they hope will lead to vacancies being filled. The new contract, which will take into affect the first week of November, will bring all salaries to at least the regional median rate. Workers also secured retroactive pay, although not as much as they hoped they would. While workers had initially asked to receive back pay which amounted to the median regional salary since their previous contract expired on April 1, through negotiation, they accepted back pay to three percent of their salaries since that date.

The East Bay Regional Park District covers both Alameda and Contra Costa counties, and members of these communities showed support to the workers during their struggle for higher pay. Over 5,000 people wrote emails to the parks board in support of the workers.

“Don’t try to short change the workers!” wrote Oakland resident Miguel Duarte.

Starting on August 20, workers announced they might strike on Labor day weekend if their demands for median regional pay were not met.

Facing the threat of a strike that had broad support from the surrounding community, the parks board scheduled a special meeting on Thursday, August 26. At the meeting, which took place on Zoom, around 250 workers showed up and over 50 spoke out against what they saw as unfair pay. Some spoke of excess funds the board had that could be used to pay workers. Their union, AFCME 2428, has pointed out that the district’s mid-year report from this year shows over $140 million in cash reserves and investment holdings as well as a $26 million dollar budget surplus in 2020. Workers claimed to feel disrespected by their less than median wages while they saw funds were available to pay them better.

“It is disheartening to know that our well being is afterthought,” said parks worker Justin Irwin at the meeting. “I work multiple jobs to support myself and my family.”

Community members also showed up. Oakland resident E Connor told the board that “Oakland is a union town” and the community would support a strike.

During the meeting the district board and management listened to speakers but did not respond. At the end of the meeting board president Dee Rosario thanked the speakers and said “Your board has heard your stories, and now it is the board’s turn to go to work.”

The day after the meeting, on the morning of August 27, I emailed both Rosario and the district’s general manager Sabrina Landreth questions about employee pay, vacancies, and the budget surplus. Neither Rosario nor Landreth responded to the questions. On Monday, the district’s executive director, Carol Johnson, responded on behalf of Landreth. She also did not answer the questions posed but wrote that after working on “a few remaining issues” the district and AFCME 2428 were close to an agreement that would avoid a strike.

Parks workers announced their win during a press conference on Tuesday at noon. Melissa Fowlks stressed the cooperative nature of their labor struggle.

“No one person alone could make this happen,” she said. “We did this collectively as a group and everyone pulled their weight.”

Notes: A shorter version of this story will appear in print in The Oakland Post on Friday. A similar version of this story will appear on The Post News Group’s website soon.