City employees go on 'Porkland' tour

By DON McINTOSH, Staff Reporter

With no end in sight to contract negotiations with the City of Portland, the seven unions that make up the 1,800-member District Council of Trade Unions are organizing themselves and turning up the heat on the city by publicly criticizing the city's spending priorities.

Nearly 300 city workers and allies turned out June 20 at PGE Park for a bus tour of "Porkland."

The boisterous event, which featured a live pig, protesters in pig snouts, and pig-shaped picket signs, attracted television news cameras and the curiosity of passersby.

After a rally at the entrance to the newly renovated baseball stadium, participants were bused to Portland State University (PSU) and the Eastside Esplanade Park for additional mini-rallies.

At PGE Park, union speakers questioned the investment of $33 million in public funds to renovate the city-owned baseball arena, which was formerly known as Civic Stadium. The deal works to the benefit of Portland Family Entertainment, which was given a long-term lease that observers believe will prove extremely lucrative for investors.

At PSU, speakers noted the city's investment of nearly $30 million to build a streetcar line from the university to Northwest Portland.

And, said one speaker at the Eastbank Esplanade, Portland's new $30 million park on the east bank of the Willamette River typifies a city that develops pet political projects while ignoring infrastructure.

"If the mayor and City Council had worked as hard looking for and finding money for their own city employees as they have for all of these other projects, we wouldn't be where we're at right now," suggested AFSCME Public Affairs Director Don Loving.

"We like the trolley car, we think it's a good thing," McEchron said, "but the money in the general fund could have been used for other things."

Contract negotiations for city employees have been under way four months. The existing contract expired June 30. The two sides will meet at the bargaining table for the last time on Monday, July 9; then it goes to mediation, with four sessions scheduled in July.

Key areas of disagreement are provisions for contracting out, who will pay for increases in health care costs, and seniority rights:

* For the purposes of considering whether there are savings to be gained by contracting out, the city wants to compare city workers to private-sector workers who don't have benefits. "The existing language says we don't have to compete with people with no benefits," said Jim McEchron, business manager of Laborers Local 483, the second largest union affiliated with the DCTU.

"That's part of what we see as just union busting," McEchron said. "If we agree to make these changes, it would make it very easy for them to move jobs out of the unionized sector."

* Recent increases in the cost of health care have been paid for out of a reserve fund. That fund is tapped out, and the city wants employees to contribute to health plan cost increases. Union officials say the city's proposal could mean that employees would have to pay as much as $200 a month for family coverage.

* It used to be that managers had to use the most senior person who applied for any new position they were qualified for. In the existing contract, city managers won the right to disregard seniority in filling 25 percent of the new positions. Now they propose to add the remaining 75 percent. The attack on seniority ends up promoting nepotism and favoritism, said Yvonne Martinez, representative for American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75 and chief negotiator for the DCTU. Martinez said there have already been examples.

* The city has 2,000 seasonal employees, several hundred of whom make barely above minimum wage. They work up to 860 hours without benefits, and some 35 to 40 percent return year after year, McEchron said. The city has been resisting attempts to organize seasonal groundskeepers, so Local 483 wanted to add to the bargaining table union recognition for seasonal workers, but was told by management that any package containing such a proposal would be rejected.

* The city proposes a cost of living increase of 2.9 percent, while the union is asking for 7 percent, based on analysis by an AFSCME researcher that compared the cost of living in Portland to other similar cities.

The city has the same approach as at previous negotiations, McEchron said. "What's different is we're playing a lot harder . Our members more organized than they've ever been before."

The backbone of the union's internal organizing campaign is the Contract Action Team, or CAT, formed nine months ago to prepare DCTU members for the mobilization it would take to get a good contract. The CAT consists of 40 activists from all over the city, in the various bureaus, led by a steering committee of eight to 10 members. "We have a model similar to the Teamsters' UPS model," Martinez said, "building a network in every one of the workplaces."

To coordinate the CAT, the DCTU hired Police Bureau steward James Hester, paying his lost-time wages for the duration of the contract campaign.

"It's resulting in all kinds of creative actions around the city," Martinez said. "It's becoming real to them: their own power and actions."

On June 13, parking deputies circled City Hall during lunch break, while other members wore red and carried red balloons.

The following week, about 30 seasonal workers rallied in front of City Hall.

The next action the CAT has planned is a "Solidarity Day" Tuesday, July 10, which will include actions at city offices throughout the day, plus a noon rally at Pioneer Courthouse Square in conjunction with workers at the State Department of Environmental Quality. The union is also calling on supporters to write or e-mail the mayor to tell her to settle the contract.

DCTU-represented workers take down police reports, fix water mains, repair sewers, inspect houses, and issue licenses, among many other classifications.

The DCTU consists of seven unions: AFSCME Local 189, Laborers Local 483, Electrical Workers Local 48, Machinists Union District Lodge 24, Operating Engineers Local 701, Painters District Council 5, and Plumbers and Fitters Local 290. Portland's police and fire fighter unions, which under state law are not allowed to strike, bargain separately.

McEchron said the city has never, in his decade-plus with the union, reached agreement with the DCTU without going into mediation. Martinez speculates that the city needs the cover of a mediator to make a deal with the DCTU. Under public employee labor law, the earliest city workers could go on strike would be Labor Day weekend.

July 6, 2001 issue

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