Portland Head Start spends $50k fighting union

In a June 2 election, workers at Early Head Start Family Center (EHSFC) of Portland defied months of management anti-union campaigning by voting more than 2-to-1 to unionize. The 50 to 24 vote to join Council 75 of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) means the unit of 82 employees now must try to negotiate a first contract.

The center is a non-profit funded by the federal, state and city governments and private grants to provide child care to pre-schoolers from birth to three years of age, so the money spent fighting the union — estimated at over $50,000 — was, in effect, supported by tax dollars.

Early Head Start Family Center of Portland operates at five locations: North Skidmore, Normandale, Gladstone, Brentwood-Darlington and the Portland Relief Nursery (the last of which was remodeled with donated union labor.)

Workers started talking with AFSCME before Thanksgiving 2003 after the firing of several teachers, and over the next several months union representatives got a majority of workers to sign authorization cards. AFSCME filed for election Feb. 25.

It was about then that management kicked off its anti-union campaign.

Executive director Cynthia Wells hired attorney Jackie Damm of the management-side labor law firm Bullard Smith Jernstedt Wilson, who began to object, through legal maneuvers, to the choice of which workers should be eligible to join.

“If there were 10 things they could do to stall the election, they did 11,” said union organizer Debra Kidney.

To resolve the employer’s objections took 12 days of National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) hearings over a five-week period. The NLRB found no merit to the employer’s case. But the delay meant the election date for the 82 workers found eligible wasn’t determined until May.

Meanwhile, management, particularly executive director Wells, had time to work on employees one-on-one and in staff meetings.

“Head Start is a social service agency,” said employee Carrie Schneider. “In my head, it wasn’t a possibility that it would get so ugly.”

At a February all-staff “training” meeting, witnesses said, Wells yelled at and made personal attacks against those who favored the union, and said that one pro-union worker didn’t care about the kids.

Workers who attended the NLRB hearings reported hostile looks from managers, and returning to work, were given the silent treatment. At least 10 union supporters are reported to have quit during the campaign.

Pro-union Head Start workers wrote a letter to the center’s board of directors (including former Republican State Senator Verne Duncan) asking them to call off the anti-union campaign. The Workers’ Rights Board of Portland Jobs With Justice formed a panel to begin looking at the dispute. The panel, which includes Metropolitan Educational Service District Board member Geri Washington, State Senator Frank Shields, Redeemer Lutheran Church’s Reverend Terry Moe, and several others, wrote a letter of concern to Wells about the use of public funds to fight the union effort. And at the union’s request, the Portland City Council sent a unanimous letter to Wells noting the value of a unionized workforce can bring to a workplace, and encouraging the organization to respect workers freedom to choose a union.

Pro-union workers say the union campaign is not about the money; it’s about respect, fairness in discipline and promotion, and reducing turnover.

“It’s not cool for two- or three-year olds to go through two or three teachers in a year,” Schneider said. “The population we work with needs to bond with an adult.”

Workers said high turnover, estimated at 30 percent a year, may be the result of a hostile work environment.

“Unfortunately, there’s an utter lack of respect from upper management, particularly the executive director,” Schneider said. “It was stressed to us many times that we were at-will employees; it was an overused phrase that ‘if you don’t like it, there’s the door.’”

AFSCME Council 75 Executive Director Ken Allen will oversee bargaining.

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.