Port of Portland will consider a “social equity” policy for airport workers

Airport food service workers Jeffrey Jones, Kevin Bell, and Van Touch joined UNITE HERE in September. Now they’re grappling with layoffs because of a restaurant reshuffling led by airport managers. They’re asking the Port of Portland Commission for a policy to allow them to work for the new company coming in.
Airport food service workers Jeffrey Jones, Kevin Bell, and Van Touch joined UNITE HERE in September. Now they’re grappling with layoffs because of a restaurant reshuffling led by airport managers. They’re asking the Port of Portland Commission for a policy to allow them to work for the new company coming in.

Port of Portland managers say they’re working on a proposal to raise worker standards at the Portland airport, but it won’t come soon enough for a group of food service workers who are due to be laid off Dec. 31.

At Gustav’s Pub and Grill, 48 newly-unionized workers got layoff notices in September, after their employer — airport food service company HMS Host — lost its lease. The closure isn’t because Gustav’s isn’t doing well. It’s because of a restaurant reshuffling instigated by airport managers.

At least four other West Coast airports — Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, and SeaTac — have “worker retention” policies. The policies require new vendors to hire old workers when concessions change hands. But Portland International Airport (PDX) lacks such a policy, notwithstanding months of appeals from the union UNITE HERE at meetings of the Port of Portland Commission.

We need to come up with a policy on workforce retention that recognizes the investment of the workers.” — Port of Portland commissioner (and Oregon AFL-CIO president) Tom Chamberlain

UNITE HERE has worked to unionize airport food service workers around the United States, in tandem with efforts by Service Employees International Union to unionize airport ramp workers, baggage handlers, jet fuelers, and cabin cleaners. In September, all 172 HMS Host workers at the Portland airport became members of UNITE HERE Local 8. Local 8 organizer Shellea Allen says UNITE HERE represents over 10,000 HMS Host workers elsewhere.

At PDX, HMS Host operates three restaurants — Gustav’s, Rose’s Restaurant and Bakery, and Rogue Ales Public House — plus all Starbucks locations. When the airport failed to renew Gustav’s lease — Bambuza Vietnam Bistro and MOD Pizza will go there instead — it meant the union had to negotiate layoff terms even before bargaining a first union contract for the unit. UNITE HERE was able to get HMS Host to agree to transfer some workers to its other airport restaurants, and give the rest a small severance payment.

Portlander Van Touch, who worked eight years as a cook at Gustav’s, was one of the lucky ones, and will transfer. Vancouver resident Kevin Bill, a widower raising three boys, was not so lucky. With worry in his voice, he attended the Dec. 10 Port Commission meeting to plead for a policy that would prevent that kind of unnecessary stress in workers’ lives.

Mass layoffs are a given when restaurants close. But Gustav’s is closing (and more closures are coming) because of decisions made by a public body. The Port of Portland — led by Commissioners appointed by the governor — manages marine terminals, industrial property, and the airport. Its mission is economic development for the benefit of local residents.

At Los Angeles International Airport, a worker retention policy requires incoming operators to hire from a pool of workers laid off by outgoing businesses. LAX food service worker Elvira Fillet was one of several workers who flew to Portland to attend the Dec. 10 Port Commission meeting so she could speak to commissioners. Fillet said she’s been through four changeovers since 1989, but the airport’s retention policy made it possible for her to raise a family, buy a car, and live the American Dream while working at the airport.

UNITE HERE and SEIU have been showing up repeatedly to monthly meetings of the Port of Portland Commission, and their persistent appeals for pro-worker safeguards may be bearing fruit. At the Commission’s Oct. 8 meeting, Port executive director Bill Wyatt said retention would be part of a “social equity” policy he intends to propose to the Commission. Commissioner Tom Chamberlain (who’s also president of the Oregon AFL-CIO) asked to have input in crafting that proposal. In late November, Port deputy executive director Curtis Robinhold (Governor Kitzhaber’s former chief of staff) met with Chamberlain and fellow commissioner Tom Tsuruta, a retail executive, to discuss concepts. Robinhold gave a brief report at the Dec. 10 meeting: The forthcoming proposal will touch on worker benefits, “job pathways,” whistleblower rights, a project labor agreement, and labor harmony. Robinhold said the proposal will go before the commission in February, after some legal scrutiny and six weeks of public engagement.

Will the Port of Portland join with the other large West Coast port authorities in setting higher labor standards? At the Dec. 10 meeting, Chamberlain was the only commissioner to react to the UNITE HERE members — who had waited two hours to address the Commission.

“We have an economic system that’s driven by capital,” Chamberlain said. “Employers invest their money, and workers invest the most precious thing to them, which is their time. When workers invest their time, there should be some safeguard.… We need to come up with a policy on workforce retention that recognizes the investment of the workers.”

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