By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
Members of the 1,600-strong District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) have ratified a new contract at the City of Portland. Each of the DCTU’s seven member unions held separate votes on the tentative agreement, then met April 25 to tally the results. Majorities in all seven unions favored ratification, though by different margins. It passed by 93 percent at AFSCME Local 189, the largest DCTU union, but just 52 percent at Laborers Local 483, the second-largest.
The agreement provides an immediate cost-of-living raise of 0.9 percent, which is only about half the current rate of inflation. The raise is retroactive to Aug. 29 — two months after the last contract expired. Those two details account for the low approval rate in Local 483, said Executive Board member Wesley Buchholz: Members felt there was no good reason to give up a full cost-of-living increase given past hardships and the fact that the City is not in crisis financially. Buchholz said the other factor in Local 483’s near-rejection was lingering mistrust toward changes to Article 6, the contract clause that restricts the City’s ability to outsource union members’ work.
DCTU chief negotiator Rob Wheaton said the City sought concessions throughout bargaining. Members rejected an earlier tentative agreement and authorized a strike, but DCTU didn’t set a strike date. Instead, the two sides continued to meet, and reached a deal March 28. In the end, Wheaton said, the DCTU was able to retain the previous contract’s most important protections.
The final sticking point was a City proposal to allow contracting out bargaining unit work in cases where it lacked “proper equipment and skills.”
“What we were having trouble wrapping our heads around was: ‘What are you referring to?’” Wheaton said. “We’re talking about bargaining unit work, so how can we be performing the work if we don’t have the proper equipment and skills?”
DCTU members were concerned that the City might let equipment fall into disrepair, or decide not to train workers on new equipment, in order to use that exception and outsource their work.
“So we put language in to protect against that,” Wheaton said.
Section 6.2.1 of the new agreement says “Bargaining unit work shall not include work that the bargaining unit employees do not possess the skills or have the appropriate equipment to perform.… The City shall continue to provide employees with the necessary equipment and training to perform work that is a logical and reasonable advancement of the work covered by this agreement, provided the money to pay for the necessary equipment and/or skills is either within the bureaus’ budget and they are authorized to spend it in this manner or the expenditure is approved by City Council.”
The new contract covers about 1,600 City workers and runs through June 30, 2017. After the first raise, cost-of-living raises will range from 1 to 5 percent, corresponding to increases in the Consumer Price Index.
Portland City Council was expected to approve the contract at its April 30 session, after this issue went to press.
Unlike most contract settlements, this one did not include voluntary resolution of pending legal charges. Both sides have unfair labor practice charges before the Oregon Employment Relations Board, including charges by each side that the other side committed “bad faith bargaining.” If the charges are not withdrawn, given that the contract is now settled, the likely remedy would be a posting on workplace bulletin boards.
Wheaton said he’s hopeful City will try a different strategy next time.
“The City’s approach to bargaining — of waiting until mediation and threatening to implement a horrible ‘last best and final offer’ — was designed for a labor dispute. It was not designed to reach a cooperative agreement,” Wheaton said. “We spent so much time arguing over one sentence, and were on the verge of striking over one sentence. I think some elected’s eyes have opened and realized this has got to change.”