‘We Set Ourselves Up to Win’ Strike Success in Santa Cruz

On September 16, 2,200 clerical, blue collar, and professional workers in the Santa Cruz County chapter of Service Employees Local 415 walked out. Their employer was long committed to substandard wages, and now planning layoffs in response to a fiscal crisis. And there was only one solid pro-union vote on the county Board of Supervisors.

But though the cards seemed stacked against them, the strikers won the highest raises of any comparable group of workers in the state while producing a harvest of new union activists. How did they do it?

First, the strike was led by a self-organized network of worksite activists. And second, strikers defined the issues in a way that strengthened their own position. Both these achievements were the product of a long process of organizing that started with just a few people.


“It started for me at that ratification meeting three years ago,” says homeless services worker Kat Shelton. “I remember crying because I had to go back and tell my clerical co-worker Sarah that she had got nothing.”

Soon after that 1999 ratification meeting, Shelton and others met to prepare for the 2002 contract. They formed the Fair Wage Action Team (FWAT). Though small, the group included people from each of the main constituencies in the union.

“We started meeting in our homes and kitchens,” Shelton says, “getting facts, getting proof we were underpaid, forming committees, and looking for leaders who would go the limit.”

Over the next two years FWAT folks were elected as chapter and local union presidents. They developed a member-run email-based bulletin called “@@ Union Eyes” through which they popularized their interpretation of the issues-described below-and tied together their diverse workforce.

When it came time to elect the negotiating committee in 2002, FWAT activists were careful to leave key leaders like Shelton off the committee, free to lead field action while negotiators were tied up in bargaining. Shelton would become “momma CAT,” coordinator of a Contract Action Team that started as a phone tree, punctuated negotiations with mobilizations, and eventually became a picket and field action structure.

At the height of the strike her team would include 25 “top CATS” coordinating 170 CATs or worksite leaders, able to get the word out to over 1,800 people in less than two hours.

A month before the strike, around 50 members participated in a strike training. Strike committees formed, and the committee chairs formed a strike council to prepare for a walkout. “We had committees for media and food and community relations and essential services and all the other things you need in a strike,” recalls Shelton, “and the amazing thing was the more committees we formed the more people came in eager to help lead them.”



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“The most painful thing is when we lose co-workers who can’t afford to live here,” says physician assistant Nancy Elliott, chair of the negotiating team. “It’s not just sad for them; high turnover means that services suffer. So from the start, our message has been ‘Fair Pay So We Can Stay.’”

First, Elliott and others devised a way to frame their demands as “fair,” rather than “greedy.” They invented the label “pay parity” for pay equal to the average of comparable counties. Then in 2001 they proposed a labor-management “parity study,” winning it through aggressive lobbying of the Board of Supervisors. As a result, negotiations would eventually focus on “implementing the study.”

Also to set the stage for the strike, the workers conducted public campaigns about the effect of low pay on employee turnover and thus on the quality of services. And in early 2002, seeing the fiscal crisis on the horizon, they persuaded the union to employ its own budget analyst, whose report revealed that the county had considerable reserves and an ability to pay wages comparable to other counties.


On September 12 over 1,000 county workers crowded into an elementary school auditorium and voted by 95% to authorize a strike. The power of rank-and-file organization became clear as around 95% of the workforce joined the strike. Since the rise of public worker militancy in the late 1960s, large “miscellaneous” city and county worker strikes in California have had a 25% to 60% participation rate. None has matched the Santa Cruz strikers.

The strike leaders were determined to “strike smart”: to use flexible tactics that sustained their momentum and applied political pressure to the Board, while avoiding an open-ended walkout. They understood very well that the strength of a strike lies less in what the workers “stop doing” than in what they start doing: how effectively, that is, they can mobilize themselves into an active political force.

They picketed 32 locations, which made them very visible. Picket lines and noontime rallies were orderly and nonviolent. Activists staffed nearly a dozen strike committees-negotiating, headquarters, pickets, emergency services, food wagon, internal communications, community relations, media-and the strike council itself. The small circle of rank-and-file leaders would have been quickly overwhelmed but for the many new rank-and filers-who joined and helped to lead the different strike committees.

For three days picket lines remained strong and strike committees devised more and more creative tactics to pressure management and connect with public support.

On the fourth day, bargainers settled. The proposal included new rights for temp workers, protection for “whistleblowers,” improvements in retiree health care, caps on health care costs, and cost of living raises. Parity increases varied by job group but together with COLA would average 19% over three years. The new contract was ratified by 80%.

And Kat Shelton’s co-worker Sarah’s three-year raise totaled 40%.

Paul Johnston is director of the Citizenship Project (a union-led workers’ center in Salinas, California), author of Success While Others Fail (a study of strike success and failure), and a sociologist at UC Santa Cruz.