By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
On Thursday, June 30, 133 unionists packed into three buses, and protested at eight Portland-area demonstrations.
The idea was conceived months earlier, when labor activists with Portland Jobs with Justice noticed an extraordinary pile-up of union contracts set to expire June 30, and thought, “Why not get all the unions together?” They dubbed the project “Portland Rising,” borrowing from the “Hotel Workers Rising” campaign, in which UNITE HERE has fought to synchronize contract expirations for West Coast hotels.
The June 30 day of protest began in the parking lot outside a collection of union offices at Southeast 12th and Madison. Participants boarded two charter buses and a First Student school bus driven by Amalgamated Transit Union officer Anna Tompte. What followed were a series of tightly choreographed, short, noisy but polite protests, in some cases coordinated with local management.
The first stop was Georgia-Pacific’s North Portland tissue paper warehouse at the Kelley Point industrial area. With their old contract on the verge of expiration, members of Inland Boatmen’s Union (IBU) were without a new one. Protesters sang and chanted in the parking lot outside, and a delegation of IBU members marched into the warehouse manager’s office and appeared to catch him off guard. As they handed him a petition calling for a fair contract, the phone rang. “Actually, they’re already here,” he said into the phone.
Next stop: the Hilton Vancouver Hotel and Convention Center. The City of Vancouver owns it. Hilton Hotels manages it. Neither wants to give workers a raise.
Demonstrators gathered in a park across the street, and heard from workers that they haven’t had a raise in four years. Their expiring union contract didn’t include raises, though it did limit housekeeper workload and contain other improvements. Earlier this year, a group of workers tried to dump UNITE HERE, but the unit voted 77 to 33 to stick with the union.
With a courteous assistant general manager holding open the door for them, protesters carrying pompoms and clappers filed quietly through the Hilton lobby. Managers directed protesters into an empty conference room, where they held a short rally. Hotel workers were ushered in amid cheers.
Banquet captain (and union steward) Wanda Buck told the Labor Press her base wage of $8.55 rises to $19 to $22 an hour after the hotel distributes half the 20 percent gratuity it charges customers. But the dishwashers and housekeepers and phone operators who make $8.55 to $9.25 are long overdue for a raise, she said.
The bus next headed to a State of Oregon office building near Lloyd Center in Northeast Portland, where a rally by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 was already under way. The biggest item of contention for state workers — no surprise — is paying for health insurance. Gov. John Kitzhaber is demanding that state workers have 5 percent of the cost deducted from their paychecks; they’re one of the rare groups of workers who haven’t yet paid premiums directly.
“We’re already paying for our health insurance,” Local 503 President Heather Conroy told the Labor Press. “We’ve done it through sub-par wages.”
Also, breaking from past practice, the state opted not to allow the expiring contract to be extended. That means union leaders can’t use the state e-mail system to communicate with members, and workers can’t file grievances. The state also halted collection of “fair share” dues from employees who aren’t full members.
Just down the street, workers at Metro regional government had their own contract expiration picket, and the bus brigade marched over to give them moral support and high fives. Metro isn’t facing a budget shortfall, yet in negotiations with AFSCME Local 3580, it’s proposing two furlough days a year, an increase in the employee share of the health insurance premium, and elimination of its 6 percent of salary contribution to pension.
Next came a visit to the tiny office of Congressman Earl Blumenauer. Demonstrators entered single file and presented their signatures on strips of paper urging him to vote against NAFTA-style trade treaties. Three of these treaties — with Korea, Colombia, and Panama — are up for a vote shortly, and Blumenauer is reportedly in favor of the Korea deal and undecided on the others. Protest coordinators collected the strips of paper and stapled them together, presenting them to the congressman as a long chain.
At Multnomah County headquarters on SE Hawthorne Blvd., members of AFSCME Local 88 were taking a “unity break.” Demonstrators circled the block a few times and then ducked inside for a short rally in a ground-floor public space. The rally ended with participants pulling out their cell phones and calling County Chair Jeff Cogen (503-988-3308) to say they support a fair contract for county workers, which a flier described as: cost of living increase, health benefits, seniority and “bumping rights.” No word on whether anyone got through to Cogen. But police arrived and told everyone to leave. They were leaving anyway.
A short ride later, protesters stepped off the bus to Dawson Park, across from Legacy Emanuel Hospital. They were given strict instructions: no banners, no walking in circles, and no crossing the street to the hospital, lest the union face federal charges. Apparently a long-standing court ruling says hospital workers have to give 10 days notice for any sort of strike action, and almost any kind of public display may be regarded as a strike and grounds for fines against a union. The park, at least, was “union territory,” as one chant declared. There, a group of SEIU Local 49 members on break, led by patient transport worker Carlotta Franklin, explained the situation: Workers’ health insurance premiums have risen 26 percent since 2008, and Legacy, despite profitability, isn’t stepping up to offer raises that would make up for that lost ground.
Food service worker (and single mom) Lisa Beasley told the Labor Press she makes $15 an hour after 23 years at Legacy, and must pay $150 a month to keep herself and kids insured.
“Legacy’s got a pot of gold,” protesters chanted, “and if they don’t give it up soon, we’ll be marching ’til next June.”
[The following week, the two sides reached a three-year contract settlement with roughly 2 percent raises each year.]
The final stop was the most tense. A group of workers entered Dosha Salon Spa on SE Hawthorne Blvd. and tried to present a petition to a manager. She fled into an office and called police. Noisy protesters filled the sidewalk, and when police arrived, marched out into the street, shutting down traffic for about 5 minutes as owner Ray Motameni watched from inside the store.
Workers at Dosha’s five Aveda-licensed spa locations earn as little as minimum wage in some cases, while giving $35 haircuts. They voted March 30 to unionize with Communications Workers of America Local 7901. But Motameni hired former Oregon Republican Party chair Bob Tiernan to handle upcoming contract bargaining, and Tiernan told workers at an April 18 mandatory meeting that Dosha intends to run “as if there’s no union here.”
On July 1, the company implemented a new and higher-deductible health care plan, without bargaining over it. Weekly negotiation sessions have consisted of union proposals and employer refusals. Bargaining team members report being assigned less desirable schedules and being written up for trivial infractions.
“The message of Portland Rising is that we can’t wait for anyone else to save us,” Portland Jobs with Justice Executive Director Margaret Butler told demonstrators. “We have to do this, together. We are the heroes we’ve been waiting for.”
With nine police cars lined up along Hawthorne, protesters reboarded buses, chanting, “We’ll be back.”