Over the Hill

Roblan had role in pension deal

Norm Cone of Paso Robles jokingly accepts the credit or blame for California’s current pension crisis. He played an early role in negotiating the lowering of the state’s retirement age.

Critics say our state and local governments’ pension plans are recklessly generous, and have pushed government budgets precariously out of balance. The recently adopted state budget would roll back some of that generosity.

When Cone was a young man in Santa Cruz in the 1970s, state pensions never entered his mind. He attended Cabrillo Community College and worked as an attendant at a locked, private psychiatric hospital.

The hospital’s patients touched his heart. He decided his life work would be helping the mentally ill; he would get a job at a state hospital and then become a social worker.

So in 1978, when he wasn’t quite 22, he went to work at Atascadero State Hospital as a psychiatric technician. After about a year, he dropped the idea of social work and decided to concentrate on improving the mental health system.

That was about the time that the state of California initiated its collective bargaining system for state employee unions.

Cone said there were about 7,000 psychiatric technicians then working in state hospitals and institutions for the developmentally disabled. They were all grouped into one big bargaining unit.

They voted sometime around 1980 to be represented by the Communications Workers of America union but soon regretted that choice.

Cone said there were complaints of incompetence and corruption.

He said the CWA responded to the complaints by putting the whole statewide bargaining unit under “receivership.”

Most of the locally elected officers were removed and the unit was run by three CWA men.

Jay Salter was also a psychiatric technician at Atascadero State Hospital. He and a few others around the state started organizing an independent union. Cone joined them.

After a hard, uphill fight, the California Association of Psychiatric Technicians replaced the CWA.

Salter became state president of CAPT, and Cone became president of the Atascadero State Hospital chapter. Cone also represented his hospital during negotiations with the state in the mid-1980s over the union’s first contract.

Cone had two main negotiating goals. One was to lower the retirement age to 55 for psychiatric technicians who work with criminally committed patients.

I’ll tell you next week how he accomplished that goal despite stiff opposition from some other hospitals. I’ll also tell you his other goal.

Reach Phil Dirkx at phild2008@sbcglobal.net or 238-2372.