10/18/07

Court workers quit 6-week strike, suspend pickets

Los Angeles County court interpreters returned to work Wednesday for the first time in six weeks, having ended a strike that sought a new pay schedule on par with other court workers. "The battle line has come to a stalemate," said union leader Michael Ferreira, a Spanish-language translator for the Long Beach Courthouse. "We've done this long enough."

The California Federation of Interpreters voted Monday to end the strike, following a contentious state Senate hearing devoted to the labor dispute in downtown Los Angeles. The interpreters were offered nothing new, although Los Angeles Superior Court management has remained open to renegotiating the union contract next year.

In Long Beach, 14 interpreters participated in the strike and most reported for duty Wednesday morning - appearing wary and glum. "Of course, I'm feeling kind of frustrated," said Helen Ketcham, a 25-year Spanish-language translator who walked with a picket sign in front of the Long Beach Courthouse nearly every day of the strike.

But for court staff, judges and defendants, the standoff ended none too soon.

For the last six weeks, courts have had to share a small number of interpreters - those willing
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to cross picket lines - and have scrambled to delay case after case in lieu of dismissing them.

They've also been forced to use non-certified translators, such as court clerks and family members, to communicate when no other options remained.

On Wednesday, Judge Gibson Lee appeared relieved to see Ketcham walk into his courtroom in Long Beach's juvenile division.

His staff indicated the need for two interpreters - one for the minor, one for his mother.

"I'm just happy to have one," he said. "What a luxury to have one."

"Thank you," Ketcham replied.

Allan Parachini, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Superior Court, said he was glad the strike was over and reaffirmed the court's longtime position that there was no more money in the state's court budget to offer interpreters.

"It's not a negotiating tactic," he said. "We don't have any more to give them. That's literally true."

Interpreters now earn about $73,000 a year, Parachini said, but are not afforded a "step salary schedule," whereby workers get automatic bumps in pay after a certain number of years on the job.

Unlike most other court employees - excluding judges - interpreters don't have steps; employees with 25 years' experience make the same amount as first-year translators.

The county provides 257 full-time certified interpreters in a number of languages - from Chinese to Arabic - plus 17 part-time workers and 125 as needed, Parachini said.

In Long Beach, the interpreters speak Spanish and Khmer, the language of Cambodia.

The court negotiated with the union for four months this year before imposing a 4 percent raise as its "last and best offer," with the promise of 3 percent raises in each of the next two years.

The union - which is relatively new - pushed for the step system and then opted to strike when contract talks broke down.

At Monday's state Senate hearing commenced by Sen. Gloria Romero (D-Los Angeles), court administrators clashed with senators and interpreters over the effect the strike has had on the courts.

In the end, Romero and others promised to try to address interpreters' salaries at the legislative level and urged interpreters to go back to work - for the good of the foreign-language community.

"How can you say no to a state senator?" Ferreira asked.

Union members went on strike Sept. 5 - a sunny, warm day - and returned to work Wednesday morning, as rain fell from a darkened sky.

Union members, particularly single parents, could no longer afford to forgo a stable income, Ferreira said. And, given the tone of the senate hearing, he said, it was clear that continuing to strike would have served little purpose.

"The only people who really would suffer were the people we serve - and justice itself," he said.

(presstelegram.com)

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