August 1, 2008 Volume 109 Number 15

Caregivers of migrant children join Laborers 320

Employees at the Oregon Child Development Coalition in Washington County voted July 23 to join Laborers Local 320. The vote, conducted by the National Labor Relations Board, was 124-17 in a bargaining unit of 170 mostly Hispanic women. Thirteen ballots were challenged by management.

“For a unit of this size, it is one of the widest margins of victory I’ve seen in my 30 years doing this,” said John Seaton, organizing director for the Laborers Northwest Region.

Local 320, headquartered in Portland, represents 1,100 workers in heavy and highway construction, at industrial plants, as well as in the public sector.

OCDC is a non-profit pre-school childhood care and education network that works primarily with families of the state’s migrant farm workers. Statewide, it employs 1,100 workers at operations in 12 counties, serving about 3,000 children and families.

The Washington County bargaining unit consists of teachers, teacher assistants, cooks, bus drivers, custodians and other workers at locations in Cornelius, Forest Grove and Banks, Oregon.

“These are truly people that need union representation, and they knew it,” said Local 320 organizer Ben Guzman. As “at-will” employees, several teachers — some with more than 10 years of service — had been fired for no apparent reason. Many employees were paid $8 an hour with no benefits.

Guzman said he was initially contacted by an employee who had been fired without cause.

“Because I spoke Spanish, she asked me to represent her,” Guzman said.

Guzman told the Labor Press that he and the woman met with an OCDC administrator, who told them he didn’t have to explain the firing to anyone.

Three months passed before a group of employees from OCDC called Guzman and asked about joining the union. “I laid it out to them,” he recalled. “ I told them they had to unite, hold hands and work together.”

A full-fledged organizing campaign ensued, with picnics, house visits and authorization cards signed.

At first, Local 320 filed for card-check recognition with the Oregon Employment Relations Board, but were told OCDC was a private, non-profit organization.

“Because there was state and federal funding, we thought we were dealing with public employees,” said Local 320 Business Manager Dave Tischer.

OCDC operates on a budget of almost $35 million a year. It gets funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, U.S. Department of Education, U.S. Department of Agriculture, Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Child Care Division, Washington County Commission on Children and Families, and the Hillsboro and Forest Grove school districts, as well as from private donations.

ERB told the union that it would investigate, but that it would take some time and the results probably wouldn’t be in their favor. The only other option was to file for an election through the National Labor Relations Board.

“Once we found this out, we knew it would be more difficult going through the NLRB,” Tischer said.

But pushed by employees, the campaign forged ahead.

Seaton, from the international union, praised Guzman and Tischer for their work coordinating the campaign, but he was especially proud of the employees. “This was worker-driven. I have to hand it to them, it was one of the best campaigns I’ve seen,” he said.

Tischer said the goal now is to get a first contract ratified. The wide margin of victory should help smooth the way.

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