California union workers sue to halt furloughs

Against the backdrop of difficult contract talks, five state worker labor unions have asked a judge to order Gov. Jerry Brown to stop what they say are illegal three-day-per-month furloughs.

The 44-page filing in Alameda Superior Court, submitted late Wednesday, argues that the furlough policy Brown carried over from Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's administration exceeds limits set by the Legislature, which has final say on what the state pays employees.

But unlike the nasty public barbs that labor and management routinely fired at each other when Republican Schwarzenegger was boss, Democrat Brown's administration and the unions seemed almost apologetic that the 2-year-old furlough fight is continuing.

On Thursday, officials on both sides put distance between the latest litigation and a looming mid-March deadline Brown has set for contract agreements.

"The filing schedule is set by the court," said state attorneys' union lawyer Patrick Whalen. "Contract talks and the furlough litigation are totally separate things. And we understand that this governor didn't start this mess."

Former union attorney Ron Yank, now the state's top labor negotiator as head of Brown's Department of Personnel Administration, said that the new litigation doesn't signal that contract talks are in trouble.

Brown has proposed a 2011-12 budget that includes saving $308 million by negotiating cheaper labor deals. Failing that, the unions' 63,000 members will stay on furlough.

Yank said he's "cautiously optimistic" that all the unions will reach labor pacts by the deadline, which would make pointless the unions' request that Judge Steven A. Brick stop furloughs.

"But I can't guarantee when there will be contracts," Yank said. "Their move (to stop furloughs) is what I'd do were I in their shoes."

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