Helen Nenadal, who has been a tireless advocate for city workers as president of the Costa Mesa City Employees Association, retired in December after 32 years of service. Helen led city workers in their fight to stop the city from outsourcing more than 200 jobs. She was often in the crosshairs of a politically motivated City Council majority, and spoke out for her fellow workers in public meetings and in the media.
“Before 2011, if you told me I was going to be in the media like I had been, I would have said ‘You’re crazy,’” she said. “Being in the New York Times was like nothing I’d ever imagined. I’m just a maintenance worker trying to do my job.”
Nenadal began working for the City of Costa Mesa in 1979 as a part-time softball coach for the city’s “ponytail” league. She ended her career as a full-time Facility Maintenance Technician, responsible for plumbing, painting, carpentry, and electrical and mechanical work at all City-owned buildings.
“I only planned to stay for a year or two, but it was the people and the atmosphere that made me stay,” she said. “It was a very caring group. You enjoyed getting up and going to work.”
She became involved in CMCEA in 1997, joining the board of directors because her co-workers convinced her it would be a good idea considering the number of people she knew throughout many city departments. She represented employees if they had problems with management and later assumed a roll on the bargaining team.
She said things changed in Costa Mesa after a previous City Manager retired and current Mayor Jim Righeimer—who has led multiple attacks against public employees—won a seat on the council in 2010.
Her biggest challenge would come the following year when, in March 2011, the council voted to issue more than 200 layoff notices to staff. In the wake of the notices being issued, CMCEA member Huy Pham, a fellow maintenance worker, jumped from the roof of City Hall and died.
“In times past, when we had issues and the economy was down, we were able to work together with the city. We went through a period of layoffs in 2010—about 70 people getting moved, bumped or let go—but nothing like what happened in March 2011,” she said. “I do believe their callousness played a significant part in what happened to Huy Pham.”
Pham’s death and the ensuing battle to save hundreds of jobs galvanized CMCEA and encouraged its president, board and members to fight back—first against the pink slips, and later against a proposed city charter that would have allowed the city to create its own outsourcing rules. That charter was defeated by an overwhelming margin of 20 percent.
After three years of constant turmoil, Nenadal said working at the city was affecting her health and it was time to move on, adding, “I have no regrets with my career, being a woman in a man’s role and learning a lot. Being on the board, and being president these last three years, I have zero regrets about communicating with management, the Council or the press.”
She believes communication and solidarity will get CMCEA members through their darkest times, and said she leaves with confidence that her fellow workplace leaders will protect the union members who she has viewed as family for so long.
“We have a strong board, so whoever succeeds me as the next president, they’ll do just fine,” Nenadal said. “Hopefully people will support them as they have supported me.”