07/16/2012 08:02 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

San Francisco Courthouse Strike Exposes Strain In City's Judicial System (PHOTOS)

SAN FRANCISCO -- A strike at San Francisco Superior Court on Monday halted much of the city court's business as workers walked off the job demanding a resumption of labor negotiations that have been stalled since February.

Chants of "Rise up, shut it down, San Francisco's a union town," echoed off the walls of the Civic Center as hundreds of striking court workers, clad in purple Service Employees International Union T-shirts, carried signs slamming court officials for a slew of furlough days and five consecutive years without cost-of-living pay increases.


"Over all the years I've worked for the court, I've never gotten a raise," longtime court employee Angelberto Gonzalez said at a press conference. "Admin officers have wasted $660 million on a software system. That money could have solved all of our staffing issues. They need to reset their priorities. We've made sacrifices, we've helped them, but now they need to help us."

While the protestors succeeded in closing down just under half of the city's courtrooms, people still flowed in and out of the court building.

Court employees have been working without a contract for almost a year. The union membership voted down management's contract offer in February that contained a 5 percent salary cut -- smilar to an agreement ratified by three other unions representing court employees. Union officials charged that court management has refused to meet with them and won't release financial information to the union.

"When the [SEIU] Local 1021 asked San Francisco Superior Court management to open the books and show the financial need for the continuing cuts, they refused," union spokesman Steve Stallone said in a statement. "When, as part of the bargaining process, the union requested they provide the financial information the federal law requires of them so they union can make reasonable and responsible counterproposals, in the court's tradition of lack of transparency, they didn't. Instead they abandoned negotiations and unilaterally imposed their cuts."

Union representatives have charged that the court's actions violate federal labor law.

“The court is committed to assuring that all essential functions proceed in spite of this misguided action by employees who are jeopardizing access to justice for their own unjustified reasons,” said court executive officer T. Michael Yuen in a statement.

A report issued by a panel of California judges earlier this year slammed the Administrative Office of the Courts for financial mismanagement.

Many Administrative Office of the Courts management functions -- "including the manner in which it carries out its decisions, plans projects, and exercises fiscal options -- are flawed [and] lack transparency ... with significant negative fiscal impacts as a result," the report said.

San Francisco's court system has long been in dire fiscal straights. Last year, in an effort to close a $13.75 million budget hole, the city court closed 25 courtrooms and laid off 40 percent of nearly 500 workers.

These cutbacks left criminal cases largely unaffected, but the civil division became profoundly understaffed.

"When you go down to the Hall of Justice for your traffic tickets and stand in line of hours and hour,s only to have the window shut on your because you didn't get there before 4 p.m., that's because we don't have enough staff," said striking court employee Divine Williams during Monday morning's protest.

"The civil justice system in San Francisco is collapsing," Judge Katherine Feinstein told reporters at the time of layoffs last year. "The future is very, very bleak for our courts."

Stallone told the San Francisco Chronicle that he expected the striking employees to return to work on Tuesday.

Check out this slideshow featuring pictures from the protest: