Multnomah County Chair Cogen steps in to settle union contract


Members of AFSCME Local 88 will vote Sept. 28 and 29 on a new three-year union contract covering about 2,800 employees of Multnomah County.

The two sides reached agreement Aug. 31 after Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen stepped in to end a months-long standoff. Cogen, joined by the county’s newly hired labor relations director, was able to reach an agreement in a few hours of bargaining. Until then, the county’s chief negotiator had been labor relations consultant Diana Moffat, who was paid $75,000 to lead bargaining.

Can you hear me now? Above, a participant at a June 30 rally calls Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen. On Aug. 31, Cogen intervened in bargaining and was able to reach in a few hours the agreement that had eluded the parties for six months.

Local 88 president Michael Hanna said Moffat’s approach was to stall, and then object when the union appealed for intervention from county decision-makers. It was a big departure from the collaborative relationship the two sides had developed in recent years. In 2007, the county and the union used a problem-solving approach in bargaining, and in 2009, the union volunteered a wage freeze to prevent layoffs. Now, Hanna said, Local 88 was treated in bargaining like an enemy. The county insisted on a two-year contract that eliminated job security and overtime protections, offered no raise in the first year, and opened health benefits to renegotiation in the second year.

“We were at a crossroads, and things were getting ready to go off the rails,” Hanna told the Labor Press. “We didn’t know if our members were ready to strike, but our bargaining team was resolutely not going to budge.”

But the county dropped its concessionary demands when Cogen entered bargaining. Hanna said the new deal is a fair one.

“I wasn’t looking at this from the point of view of trying to have management get a ‘win,’” Cogen told the Labor Press. “My goal was to find a win-win.”

Details were mailed to members Sept. 9. About 85 percent of those covered by the contract are full-fledged union members; only members may vote on the contract.

The new agreement includes individual step increases as well as across-the-board cost-of-living increases: 1.2 percent immediately, retroactive to July 1; 0 percent in the second year; and 1 to 4 percent in the third year, linked to the Consumer Price Index. A side agreement commits the county to use savings from the second year cost-of-living freeze to prevent layoffs of Local 88 members.

And in a non-binding side agreement, the county will aim for a county-wide ratio of one manager for every seven or eight workers. Currently the ratio is 1 to 6.5, Hanna said. Cogen said the change would save at least $3.5 million over the next two years. The idea of slimming down management ranks was first raised as a union issue at the state level earlier this year, and a new state law calls for a 1 to 11 ratio at large state agencies.

“[Local 88] understood that these are tough times, and that everyone needs to sacrifice,” Cogen said. “But they wanted to make sure that it was fair and equitably distributed — that labor would feel it, management would feel it, and we’d try to do it in a way that will preserve services to the community.”

The contract also preserves existing health and retirement benefits, as well as the right of laid-off workers with seniority to “bump” into positions elsewhere in the County that they are qualified for. And it continues the county’s “Project Save” policy, in which workers slated for layoff may take a demotion into a vacant position.

New non-binding language in the contract commits Local 88 to support the county’s sustainability principles, which include energy efficiency, recycling, and resource reduction measures; the contract also continues the county’s commitment to provide an annual bus pass as an employee benefit.

And the contract includes a non-monetary benefit that Local 88 members had identified as a priority: A committee composed of representatives of labor and management will work out details of a policy to allow employees flexibility in their work schedule. Under the policy, which will be implemented July 1, 2012, employees will have some choice in how they set their schedule unless management can show a strong business reason not to allow it.

“To me it’s just a good idea,” Cogen said. “We think it’s better for family life. There are times when it’s better for customer service. And it will make our employees happier.”

Once members approve the contract, it will go to the county board for ratification.


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