Labor negotiations between the West Bay Sanitary District and the union that represents its employees has sputtered to a near halt as the district attempts to maintain some employee practices in place since 1902.

Key issues in the dispute are the district’s desire to keep at-will employment and management rights in a new contract. Teamsters Local No. 350 Business Agent James Furgas said this wish keeps the district and its employees "miles apart” in the negotiating process and may ultimately lead to a strike.

At-will employment essentially allows management to fire anyone at anytime, Furgas said, and management rights would allow the district to subcontract out any work at anytime.

"It doesn’t look good,” Furgas said, who represents the district’s employees.

The West Bay Sanitary District handles sewage from Menlo Park, Atherton, Portola Valley, East Palo Alto, Woodside and parts of unincorporated San Mateo and Santa Clara counties and employs about 20 people.

Juan Coca has worked for the district for almost nine years and does not like the idea of being fired at any time, especially since the district is searching for a new manager.

"My employment here has been good for the most part but the past year has been stressful,” Coca said. "It feels like the district is not willing to give up anything.”

But Ronald Shepherd, West Bay Sanitary’s board president, maintains at-will employment has been a practice within the district for more than 100 years and that there is nothing wrong with the practice.

"We are not anti-union,” Shepherd said. "Our employees are protected and taken care of. We don’t just say ‘you are fired.’”

Shepherd realizes some employees might be nervous about a new boss coming in, but said at-will employment "has never been an issue.”

Shepherd, however, has felt pressure from the community regarding the negotiations and has had Assemblyman Ira Ruskin, D-Redwood City, call him numerous times on behalf of district’s employees.

There will be more pressure too as the union is prepared to campaign heavily against two board members, David Knight and Harry Harrison, up for re-election in November.

"We will go precinct walking in support of their opponents if we have to,” Furgas said.

The employees are simply looking for some protection with a grievance process, Furgas said.

"They are not asking for too much,” he said.

Bill Silverfarb can be reached by e-mail: silverfarb@smdailyjournal.com or by phone: (650) 344-5200 ext. 106.

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