Local 701 event custodians win first contract with MERC

Custodians who take care of the Schnitzer Concert Hall, Portland Keller (formerly Portland Civic) Auditorium and the Portland Center for the Performing Arts have ratified their first union contract as members of Operating Engineer Local 701.

The employer is the publicly-funded Metropolitan Exposition-Recreation Commission (MERC).

A state mediator conducted the last three bargaining sessions following six months of "regressive bargaining" by MERC, said Cherry Harris, stationary engineers' coordinator for Local 701. "It was only after mediation started that we noticed them start to come off their hard-line positions," several of which the union was preparing to file unfair labor practice complaints against.

Local 701 was recognized voluntarily by the commission last May after 16 of 18 custodians signed union authorization cards. But once at the bargaining table, MERC resisted union efforts to obtain health insurance, pension benefits and vacation pay for workers, insisting that custodians were not eligible for fringe benefits because they were only part-time employees. But Local 701 found many of the "part-timers" regularly worked as much as 40 hours a week.

Soon after the union was recognized, most of the employees had their hours cut to reflect part-time status, the union said. On top of that, MERC regularly hired temporary workers to fill in during times when events were booked one on top of another.

Harris said temps continued to be hired throughout negotiations - even after the mediator was brought in.

The new contract is retroactive to July 1, 2000, and provides for wage increases of 1.7 percent and from between 2 to 4 percent in July 2001 and July 2002, based on the cost of living index. The raises bump the top custodian pay to $10.63 an hour.

The union was able to obtain full-time status and benefits for one custodian, but it reached agreement on a side-letter that grandfathers nine others to a minimum of 32 hours a week. In the side letter the commission also recognized the importance of scheduling regular employees to as many hours as possible - up to 40 hours a week - before hiring temp workers. Additionally, a temp worker can log no more than 720 hours a year.

"That is significant," Harris said, "because now we have a grievable issue if MERC continues to cut hours and hire temps."

The new contract also contains language that allows custodians to work at any of the three venues. In the past, if a custodian was assigned to Schnitzer Hall and nothing was scheduled for a particular weekend, that custodian would not get reassigned to Keller Auditorium where, say, three events were on tap. Instead, MERC would hire temps.

"This contract is a good starting point and provides something to build on," said Harris. "There is language in there that protects workers and little items that provide some guarantees."

MERC was represented at the bargaining table by Tanya Collier, a former Multnomah County commissioner and past union business representative.

March 2, 2001 issue

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