Water Bureau worker heads AFSCME Local 189

Bad managers make good unions, it is said. Where there’s bad management, non-union workers want to unionize, and union workers decide it’s time to get involved.

At the Portland Water Bureau, customer accounts specialist Carol Stahlke, 38, got involved in her union to fight what she saw as management abuses.

Stahlke was raised in a family where “union” meant something. Her grandfather never had a decent job until he became a union plumber. Her Machinist father supported the family on union wages. Her mother, a retail clerk, helped unionize her employer.

Stahlke grew up on a 12-acre farm in Clackamas, and graduated from David Douglas High School in 1985.

She began working at the Portland Water Bureau in 1992. It was a union job, and a pressure cooker of dysfunction, she said. After three years, she moved to San Diego, where she met and married a Navy Seabee. When the marriage failed in 1998, she returned to the Portland area, and to the Water Bureau.

Stahlke had left the bureau burned out, but when she returned, what she found burned her back in.

Half the people she knew had left. Those that remained worked in fear of their jobs. It was a case of what Stahlke calls “less than desirable” management.

“Instead of coaching and mentoring, what we had was documenting and terminating. When people see co-workers getting fired at a whim, they don’t have a lot of faith in the union.”

Stahlke decided to get involved in her union, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Local 189.

A major “classification compensation” study was under way, intended to raise wages for many job classifications that had been historically underpaid. Water Bureau management wanted to lower salaries, arguing that $19-an-hour customer service specialists had no more skills than $10-an-hour receptionists.

Stahlke stepped forward, and contacted water bureaus in other cities to see what similar workers were paid. Her efforts led to rejection of the proposed pay cuts, and a $1 an hour raise.

At that time, Portland City Employees Local 189 had no stewards at the Water Bureau’s 100-employee downtown office, so Stahlke volunteered.

At first, people were afraid to be seen talking to her, she recalls. Then she started filing grievances and recruiting others to become stewards.

She began to acquire a reputation.

“I’d file a grievance and figure it out later. Or I’d call the manager and say, ‘What are you doing?’”

Stahlke admits her win rate wasn’t stellar at first; but at least workers had someone who was willing to fight for them. They needed it, she says, because management was violating basic contract rights.

Stahlke was familiar with the military-style of management, having lived on a military base, but at the Water Bureau, she said, “We’re not enlisted; we didn’t sign up for this.”

She was elected as chair of Local 189’s Chapter S, which includes the downtown Water Bureau and two other departments.

As time went on, Stahlke earned the respect of Portland City Commissioner Eric Sten (then in charge of the Water Bureau), who says Stahlke was a leader and a problem-solver during the widely-publicized problems with a new computerized billing system. “We had a clear line of communication, and in a crisis situation, you need that,” Sten said.

In one of many battles with management, Stahlke fought the overuse of temporary employees. Before she intervened, managers would keep temps for two years or more without any benefits or offer of a permanent position. Water Bureau call center worker Michelle Wray was such a temp, until Stahlke won her a permanent position. Later, Stahlke defended Wray in a dispute with management, and Wray, now a Chapter chair, decided it was time to get involved in the union.

“I wanted to be another mini-Carol Stahlke,” Wray said. “She has no fear when it comes to management. If they’re doing something wrong, she’ll let them know right away, and she’ll give it 150 percent until the problem is solved.”

In September 2004, AFSCME’s statewide Council 75 hired Local 189 President James Hester as a full-time staff person. Local 189’s Executive Board appointed Stahlke to fill the vacancy. She then ran unopposed in November for a two-year term.

She’ll have her hands full, she acknowledges. Local 189, with 1,100 members, is the largest of at least 11 unions representing workers at the City of Portland. AFSCME and six other unions bargain together in a coalition called the District Council of Trade Unions, and their contract is up for renewal in July 2006. In 2002, aggressive bargaining by the city frayed relations so strongly that workers went on a short strike.

Stahlke has high hopes that newly-elected Mayor Tom Potter and City Commissioner Sam Adams will support improved relations with the unions — despite the fact that most of the union locals endorsed their opponents.