SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a battle that goes back into history, labor representatives were in the front ranks of those fighting Tuesday against an IT project that has devoured hundreds of millions of dollars while court workers are laid off for lack of funds.
“How can this body justify spending money on technology when the courtrooms that would use it are locking their doors and our justice system is being crumbled into ruins because there isn’t enough court staff to do the work,” said Karen Norwood with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
The conflict between labor unions in California’s courts and the bureaucrats of the Administrative Office of the Courts has a long history. Labor unions supported an initiative that consolidated California’s municipal courts and superior courts more than a decade ago.
One effect of that consolidation was to create a stronger and more cohesive labor representation for court workers. A reaction from the administrators, according to independent observers, was to commission the IT project intended to ultimately allow lawyers to file their legal documents via the Internet.
A key aspect of that electronic system is that it requires the lawyers to fill out docket information ahead of time, a task traditionally done by court workers when documents are filed in paper form. A similar transition in federal courts has decimated the ranks of public employees who had steady jobs with modest pay and good benefits.
In federal court in Los Angeles, for example, the large area where intake and docketing clerks used to work is like a ghost office, with gray desks and gray mat partitions all lined up and in place, but without any human workers.
The effect of new technology in the few California courts that have adopted early versions of the IT system commissioned the the court bureaucrats is similar. A head clerk with close ties to the Adminstrative Office of the Courts points with pride to the reduced number of jobs in the records room of his trial court, for example. At the same time, the IT staff has ballooned.
Many middle-class jobs have, as a result, been replaced with fewer but much higher paid technical jobs that rely on a different set of technological skills. The trade-off in terms of public funds is generally a wash, federal court clerks have said, with the many modestly paid workers replaced by the fewer highly-paid workers who have “a different skill set.”
While saving little in terms of public funds, the shift in technology has had the effect of accelerating the growing national divide between those who earn large amounts of income and those who earn little or none.
In their statements to the Judicial Council on Tuesday, union representatives attacked the administrators’ technology campaign as a foolish waste of taxpayer money and a destroyer of good jobs.
Said Gwendolyn Jones, president of the AFSCME, “People’s lives are on hold because the courts no longer have the resources to operate properly. Currently in Los Angeles it takes 16 weeks to get an initial custody hearing.”
“Do you think those parents care what computer system we’re using?” she asked. “People need to be our priority, not technology.”