Mass walkout at city event highlights growing tension with employee union

As City Manager Pat West spoke at an annual Public Works appreciation breakfast on Wednesday, roughly 200 workers, many are members of the Association of Long Beach Employees union, stood up, turned their backs and walked out in solidarity.

For the roughly 700-member ALBE, the walkout marked a tense climax to three years of ongoing contract negotiations with the city. The union, which includes mostly blue-collar workers such as electricians, plumbers and construction workers, hasn’t had a contract since 2016, and the workers say they’re feeling the brunt of lower pay compared to other cities.

“It takes a lot for a bunch of lower-level employees to turn their backs on the boss,” said Wendell Phillips, the union’s general counsel. “I hope Pat West got the message.”

The biggest source of contention has been salaries. A study commissioned by the union last year, which compared salaries to 10 other municipalities including Los Angeles, Anaheim and Huntington Beach, found that 75% of Long Beach workers were paid less than those in comparable cities. Some workers, such as gas construction workers, were paid more than 50% percent less, the study found.

“We have full-time workers who are qualifying for food stamps,” Phillips said.

Phillips said the walkout was sparked after the city manager recently canceled a mediation session.

Both sides are now set to move into three days of fact-finding sessions in June to push along negotiations. If the parties can’t reach an agreement, Phillips said, the next walkout could be on the job.

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Kelly Puente is a general assignment and special projects reporter at the Long Beach Post. Her prolific reporting has taken her all over Southern California—even to the small Catalina Island town of Two Harbors. She is a Tiki mug collector and is currently pursuing a master’s degree in public policy and administration at Cal State Long Beach. Reach her at [email protected].