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By Jessyka Heredia

Watch full video here.


October 9, 2023 (Lemon Grove)—On Tuesday, Lemon Grove councilmembers Allysson Snow and Jennifer Mendoza teamed up to have a 3% wage increase on the agenda for the public works department and bypass waiting on the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 127 union’s negotiations that have been going on for several months. Mayor Raquel Vasquez was very adamant that this could set a dangerous precedent in the future.

Back in July, ECM reported on negotiations between the city and the union. Union representative Mat Kostrinsky told ECM back then, “My members want a deal quickly. We are rushing to get proposals written and presented. We signed off on a deadline to have all proposals presented to management within four meetings, which will be by August 22. This is the first time I have signed such an agreement, which is not required in bargaining.”

When asked how long it could take to get to the final MOU, Kostrinsky said, “Negotiation can last days, weeks, months, and sometimes a year or more. It depends on the two sides wanting to reach a deal and being able to honestly understand the other side and be reasonable with their proposals and counterproposals.”

Kostrinsky was not present at Tuesday's meeting.

Mayor Vasquez stated yesterday during the discussion, “On July 25th, I met with Mat Kostrinsky and three of our public works employees and spoke about their contract.” Mayor Vasquez said that the city of Lemon Grove “has been trying to get a contract from AFSCME for an entire year.” Vasquez added that she is a union member herself and that for 23 years she has been “through the negotiation process as an employee several times” and noted, “It’s important to have an agreement on file regarding your wages and benefits that you receive from a government agency.”

Vasquez explained that there are no unions that exist today where employees get raises without a contract in place. Vasquez was agitated at the fact that the city is still waiting on the contact from the union and said she recommended to Kostrinsky back in July to get at least a one-year wage agreement signed while the rest is negotiated, so the city’s employees could get paid the 3% raise that all city employees and firefighters were approved to received back in July. Vasquez was sympathetic to the needs of workers, but said, “I implore us to do this the right way, with an agreement. For me and my experience, I have never seen a raise without a contract being in place.”

Councilmember George Gastil stated that he “understands the mayor’s concerns but, when we voted to approve the budget back in June, we had in mind that all of our city employees would get a 3% raise. The AFSCME has been continuously saying that they are in fact expecting this raise.” Gastil clarified his position and said, “I believe we are at the point where we’re in November and we should say, you know what, they should be receiving this raise retroactively to the beginning of the fiscal year.” Gastil expressed that he didn’t want this held up.

Vasquez responded to Gastil, stating, “I believe we can get it done, but I wouldn’t want to circumvent a union process that has been in place. I think that if we go around that then we’re setting precedence.” Vasquez was not opposed to the raise but rather the process of “negotiating a raise at the platform and at a city council meeting is the not the appropriate way to do it.” Vasquez reiterated that the Council should “ensure that we are not negotiating salaries or pay at the platform. It’s important to acknowledge and follow the standard operating procedures that are in place and scribed by unions.”

Freshman councilmember Snow moved to retroactively pay the public works from July 1 of 2023 through current payroll and continue without an end date. Mendoza seconded the motion.

Vasquez warned the Council, “What I see in the future are other opportunities to negotiate a salary increase right here at the platform and so we are setting precedence for that.”

Snow fired back, telling the Mayor, “It’s not like they’re trying to separately negotiate around a contact that already existed. We don’t have a contract yet but there is nothing wrong with taking this path. It is not a traditional path. I would not have suggested it come before this dais. I made sure with our city attorney...I had discussions with our city manager to make sure this was a process that was kosher and wouldn’t do anything to the detriment of the city’s interests, or our staff’s interests. I want to be clear that this is not an illegal step. That were not circumventing the law here in any way.” Snow concluded, “We are not establishing precedent, this is an anomaly. To be clear we will not negotiate from the Dias” in the future.”

The Council voted 3-0 with Councilmember Liana LeBaron absent and the Mayor abstaining from the vote.

ECM reached out to Mat Kostrinsky and asked him for his comments and why there was a delay getting a contract to the city. Kostrinsky responded, “Last June, city management singled out the supervisors and general staff employees within Public Works not to get the 3% COLA on July 1st. I was told the move was management’s bargaining tactic. It is my understanding that elected officials were led to believe this first-time contract could be completed in a couple of months and the employees would be left harmless. This was not realistic, we told city management, as well as testifying during public comments at council meetings, and now “Monday morning reflection”, we were correct. We know, that most first-time contracts, which are simple, can take at least eight (8) or more and then the more complex with adversarial bargaining can take three (3) years. Even simple and established contracts take several months.”

Kostrinsky addressed comments from the mayor stating, “I know there were comments about our members from the dais on Tuesday night that were inaccurate about our bargaining or bargaining in general. The Mayor has not accepted any of our invitations to attend bargaining sessions to observe the process and has told our members she does not participate in her own union’s bargaining and has no training in it. Bargaining is not an easy process, and I will continue to invite the Mayor to join a session as an observer to understand it.”

Kostrinksy backed up the employees and why they were seeking unionization and said, “Lemon Grove has wonderful and dedicated employees, who work hard for the residents and businesses of the community. The Public Works employees, which are now less than a dozen employees, elected to unionize because they felt the city management was not as accessible, and their working conditions, wages, and benefits were not being addressed. The City struggles to retain employees or even recruit new employees due to the current low wages, which in some cases, including our bargaining unit, are not even competitive to a fast food employee.”

“The real story for the City of Lemon Grove Public Works employees is they had three council members correct the past vote to authorize the 3% wage increase, retroactively from July 1st.Thank you, Councilmembers Snow, Mendoza, and Gastil. Our members are very pleased, but … the wages are still too low to live in Lemon Grove or San Diego in general. Recent stories just stated, that San Diego just clinched the top spot as the most expensive place to live in the United States”, kostrinsky continued, “The work will continue at the bargaining table with the hope of making sure Lemon Grove is able to retain these amazing and dedicated employees and attract others to serve the residents and businesses.”

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