Santa Barbara Superior Court employees voted by an overwhelming majority to join a union in hopes of raising wages and getting a hand up in negotiations with the state of California.

Over 75 percent of Santa Barbara Superior Court employees voted to align themselves with the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 620 on Sept. 24 and Sept. 25. The partnership with SEIU – American’s largest union – ensures greater collective bargaining power for Santa Barbara County’s court employees who are fighting for cost of living salary adjustments.

“Although the state gave us a 2.5 percent cost of living increase this year, that money didn’t offset the cost of our increased insurance premiums,” judicial assistant Abigail Peralta, a new union member, said. “Santa Cruz County court employees recently got a 6.5 percent cost of living increase by joining a union through SEIU, so we thought it would be a good idea for us do the same thing.”

Problems with employee salaries began in the mid-1990s after responsibility for paying court staff wages was shifted from the county level to the state. In Santa Barbara County, court worker cost of living wage increases have not kept pace with other counties that have already unionized their court employees.

“It’s a very strange situation we’re in,” said Gary Blair, Santa Barbara Superior Court Trial Courts Executive Officer. “It’s like running a company without having control over how much you pay your employees.”

Blair is responsible for the overall operations of county court staff. Blair said the new union will help him and county court staff in lobbying the California state government for more funding to increase worker wages, benefits and workplace conditions.

After the new union chapter completes its first task of selecting a negotiating team to lobby state officials, union members may only be months away from obtaining the necessary funds to support everything from new air conditioners in staff buildings to a fair cost of living wage increase, Blair said.

Although the vote to unionize had broad support among county court workers, Blair said some employees did not want to pay mandatory union dues.

Blair said he wanted to make sure every employee who could possibly be affected by the decision to join a union would have the opportunity to get out and vote.

“We extended employee lunch hours and set up onsite polling stations,” Blair said. “We even sent out about 20 absentee ballots to workers we knew wouldn’t be in the office on the days voting was taking place.”

“I’m very pleased,” Blair said. “We had over an 80 percent voter turnout rate, much better than in any presidential election.”