OSEA seeks union recognition for 300 Head Start workers

Carmen Medel speaks at a celebration of union organizing success at the Oregon AFL-CIO Office in Portland. Photo by Russell Sanders, courtesy Oregon AFL-CIO
Carmen Medel speaks at a celebration of union organizing success at the Oregon AFL-CIO Office in Portland. Photo by Russell Sanders, courtesy Oregon AFL-CIO

Workers at the Mount Hood Community College Head Start program are on track to get union representation. On April 29, union organizers submitted cards to the state Employment Relations Board — signed by a majority of the 287 workers — saying they want to join Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA).

MHCC Head Start offers preschool, child care, health screenings, meals and other services in East Multnomah County to low income families with children under six. The program has 16 locations, and a culturally diverse and mostly-female workforce with many native Spanish and Russian speakers. The union would represent teachers, teacher assistants, aides, bus drivers, kitchen workers, administrative staff, interpreters, and other classifications.

OSEA represents Head Start workers in Clackamas County, Lane County, and in Central Oregon. Richard Ramirez, OSEA director of organizing, said the union had been reaching out to MHCC Head Start workers for over a year. But the campaign ramped up in mid-March when organizing staff from other unions joined OSEA staff and members — including members from other Head Start locations — for a four-day “blitz” of house calls, during which they talked with up to 150 workers. [Since employers almost never give access to the workplace for union organizers to meet with workers, most union campaigns visit workers at home to talk about unionizing.]

The multi-union effort was run out of a single-wide trailer outside the Oregon AFL-CIO Portland office dubbed the “organizing annex” or “war room.” It included staff from American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), American Federation of Teachers, Communications Workers of America, Machinists, and United Steelworkers, as well as staff from the Oregon AFL-CIO and the national AFL-CIO.

As organizers made house visits, workers who signed cards were asked if they’d be willing to have their picture taken and used in outreach materials; each day, the “Join us in building our union” flier expanded.

Organizers say workers’ concerns include job security, disparate treatment, less-than-ideal working conditions, and high turnover of staff. Collective bargaining could address those issues, as well as the desire for better training and health benefits for part-timers.

Management’s response has been muted: Letters were mailed to workers “explaining the process,” and referring to the union as a “third party.” But MHCC Head Start managers have not waged the kind of anti-union campaign commonly seen in the private sector.

Under Oregon law, verification of the union authorization cards leads to union recognition — unless within two weeks 30 percent of the workers sign a petition in favor of having a union election instead. That objection period ends May 17 for this group.

Oregon AFL-CIO Organizer Chris Hewitt, AFT Project Staff Organizer Lesly Salinas and AFL-CIO Organizer Claudia Magaña at the State of Oregon Employment Relations Board after filing a petition to organize Mt. Hood Community College Head Start workers.
Oregon AFL-CIO Organizer Chris Hewitt, AFT Project Staff Organizer Lesly Salinas and AFL-CIO Organizer Claudia Magaña at the State of Oregon Employment Relations Board after filing a petition to organize Mt. Hood Community College Head Start workers.

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