Workers at a Portland call center run by the Fund for the Public Interest finally have a union contract — two years and four months after joining Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901.
Fund for the Public Interest, headquartered in Boston, runs street, door-to-door and telephone fundraising for state “public interest research groups” like OSPIRG and a spinoff network of state environmental groups like Environment Oregon. It also has contracts to do fundraising for groups like Human Rights Campaign.
In spite of those groups’ progressive reputation, the Fund is an abusive employer, churning through and terminating personnel at a prodigious rate. That’s what prompted its Portland call center workers to unionize, but the Fund didn’t stop being an abusive employer just because federal law told it to bargain in good faith with employees.
In fact, CWA contended in charges filed with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), managers used the Fund’s existing draconian rules to eliminate union supporters one after another — firing them for trivial offenses, or more commonly for missing fundraising quotas. The Fund fired the worker who first called the union, all eight of the workers who presented the original union petition to a manager, all four workers who volunteered on the union’s initial bargaining team, and several who replaced them, for a total of at least 13 supporters fired — in a call center that employs about 25. But as thousands of American workers have learned, the NLRB is a toothless bureaucracy when it comes to stopping employers from firing union activists.
Proving a worker was fired for supporting a union isn’t easy. CWA filed multiple charges protesting the firings, but only one charge went anywhere: After an August 2013 hearing, a federal administrative law judge ordered that fired union activist David Neal be reinstated with back pay. The Fund appealed the judge’s order, and offered to reinstate Neal pending resolution of the appeal. But the Fund also told Neal he’d be terminated if the Fund won its appeal. That wasn’t the unconditional reinstatement offer CWA believed the judge ordered. Neal, who now does similar fundraising work for the Oregon Working Families Party, declined to accept, holding out for an unconditional offer in the event he wins the appeal, which is still pending.
The Fund may have thought the union effort would peter out, but it didn’t. When union supporters were fired, their pro-union coworkers waged short strikes to protest — and trained and oriented new hires. CWA Local 7901 President Madelyn Elder said a pro-management employee tried to circulate a petition to dump the union, but no coworkers would sign.
But contract negotiations consisted of stonewalling. Telephone fundraising director Pat Wood flew out to Portland once a month from Boston, and said “no” to union proposals, even those as trivial as automatic payroll deduction. Over the course of two years of negotiations, the Fund refused to agree to the most basic union contract rights, such as not disciplining workers without “just cause,” or the requirement that represented employees pay union dues.
But in February, the Fund dropped its hard line on the requirement to pay union dues, and that was enough. What made the difference, Elder thinks, was union pressure on the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights group, to switch its fundraising to another contractor. Elder said once that became a real possibility, the Fund settled.
Call center workers ratified a new four-year agreement Feb. 25 in a unanimous vote. The contract contains no raises or additional benefits, but it codifies existing workplace policies, and addresses worker concerns about pay instability and job security by limiting performance-based pay cuts to $2 an hour per pay period, and giving workers a third missed-quota week, once a year, before being terminated. Elder said that saved one worker’s job right off the bat.
The contract contains a grievance procedure consisting of appeals up through four levels of the Fund chain of command. But unlike most union contracts, there’s no provision for resolving grievances through binding arbitration. But Elder said that means workers retain the right to strike if a grievance isn’t resolved to their satisfaction; most union contracts bar workers from striking during the term of the contract.
The CWA-Fund contract runs through February 2018. It covers the Fund’s Portland call center workers, but not its thousands of canvass employees or its call center workers in Sacramento and Boston.