By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Portland’s park rangers, who patrol the City’s approximately 200 parks, are a tight-knit crew. They wear the same uniforms, work under the same manager, get the same state security officer training, and do the same outdoor work. Most earn $11 to $13 an hour, receive no benefits, and get laid off after 1,400 hours for budget reasons. They want to join Laborers Local 483, which represents other Parks Bureau employees, and they want to be covered under the City of Portland contract with the seven-union coalition known as District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU).
In 2012, when candidate Charlie Hales was out looking for labor endorsements, he declared his support for the right of workers to unionize. But in 2013, when Mayor Hales was asked point blank by the 15 park rangers to recognize their union, he declined — though he had the authority to grant their request. The official line was that he’d prefer they certify union support through a “secret ballot” election supervised by the state Employment Relations Board (ERB). So on April 17, 2013, the rangers filed with ERB to do that. The City Attorney’s office, which is under Hales’ direction, answered their petition with six pages of legal objections to their definition of the proposed bargaining unit.
That’s actually what anti-union employers do in the private sector. “Union avoidance” consultants advise employers never to voluntarily recognize a union; instead, they make the union request a government-administered election, and then they file technical legal objections to delay the election.
They were doing everything they could to deny the park rangers their collective bargaining rights.” — Local 483 business manager Erica Askin
Boil it all down, and the City of Portland attorney is arguing that these 15 coworkers (and maybe two others) ought to be in three separate bargaining units, not one; and they ought to be represented by AFSCME Local 189, not Laborers Local 483; and they ought to be not in the DCTU unit but in stand-alone units, where they could negotiate three separate union contracts with the City.
But Oregon’s public sector labor law doesn’t work that way.
ORS 243.662 says public employees “have the right to form, join and participate in the activities of labor organizations of their own choosing for the purpose of representation.”
Wendy Greenwald, an administrative law judge for the Employment Relations Board, held a two-day hearing on the City’s objections May 28-29, and issued her ruling Nov. 20, dismissing the City’s case and ordering it to get on with the election and draw up a voter list within 10 days. But then the City appealed the judge’s decision to the three-member Employment Relations Board, which functions as the “supreme court” of Oregon public sector labor law. The Board heard arguments from both sides Jan. 9, and on March 6, it too dismissed the City’s objections, and ordered the election to move forward.
Rangers were jubilant at a March 10 meeting to discuss next steps. They can’t wait to be in the union.
But their experience poses a question for the rest of labor to ponder: How is it that the mayor and the other four members of City Council all represent themselves as friends of organized labor, and yet City attorneys just spent public resources for over a year to obstruct and delay the attempt of 15 park rangers to join a union?
City’s excuse: “caught in the middle”
The Labor Press asked the mayor’s spokesperson Dana Haynes why the City fought the rangers attempt to unionize, and how much it spent to do so. Haynes said he asked the lawyers in the City Attorney’s office and learned that the City was “caught in the middle” between AFSCME and Local 483.
Leaders of both unions were offended to hear that reply.
“That’s total bullshit,” said Local 483 business manager Erica Askin, who helped the rangers organize and represented them in the ERB proceedings. “They’re doing a divide-and-conquer type thing.”
According to the rangers, the real story is this: After Parks manager Art Hendricks learned they’d talked with the Laborers, he suggested they talk to AFSCME. Rangers met with representatives of both, and in the end opted to go with Local 483, which represents other workers in the Parks Bureau, from arborists and turf maintenance workers to lifeguards and rec center staffers.
AFSCME Local 189 president Mark Gipson says he’d love for AFSCME to represent the rangers, but always respected it was their choice to make, and went out of his way not to interfere. Judge Greenwald said as much in her ruling: “AFSCME neither petitioned to represent the park rangers, nor sought to intervene in the petition filed by [the Laborers.]”
What AFSCME did do was file a grievance when the City assigned rangers to write parking tickets in City parks. The grievance said that should be the work of AFSCME-represented parking patrol officers. The rangers agreed with that. Nine of them signed an open letter supporting AFSCME’s grievance, which is still pending.
“Anything they say about this difference between AFSCME and Laborers is bullshit,” Gipson said. Gipson explains that the grievance — which he wrote and filed — is about a very basic union contract feature, the part where the employer recognizes the union as the representative of all workers in a classification, responsible for negotiating and enforcing provisions spelling out wages and conditions. When an employer starts assigning other workers to do the same work, and at a much lower wage rate, that violates the contract.
City Attorney Farley argued that because one suggested remedy to the AFSCME grievance would be for rangers to become AFSCME members, that meant AFSCME was seeking to represent them. But Gipson says it was the City which suggested that remedy, not AFSCME.
“There was a little ‘nod, nod,’ and ‘wink, wink’ of ‘How about if you guys represented these workers?’ They wanted to break our contract and get themselves in the business of organizing, which they have no right to do,” Gipson said.
So the City wasn’t “caught in the middle” between two contending unions. On the contrary it appears to have tried to instigate conflict between them.
Public resources spent to hinder employee union rights
As for how many tax dollars were spent opposing the rangers’ attempt to join Local 483, Haynes said it was only attorney and other staff time, and they were not eligible for overtime, and were going to be paid whether they worked on the rangers case or something else. Farley collects a $114,175 annual salary (more than seven times what the park rangers are paid, incidentally). At least one paralegal also worked on the case, which would have involved interviews, preparing and filing the objection, preparing for and taking part in a two-day hearing with several dozen evidentiary exhibits, putting together post-hearing briefs, filing an eight-page appeal of the judge’s decision, preparing and delivering oral arguments to ERB — in short, a substantial amount of legal work. And someone in the mayor’s office or the City Attorney’s office thought that was an appropriate use of public resources.
Now that ERB dismissed the City’s objections, Haynes said the City “welcomes the Employment Relations Board’s direction.”
“I think it’s clear,” Askin said. “They were doing everything they could to deny the park rangers their collective bargaining rights.”