By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
What do you get when you ask high-paid managers to draft a proposal to improve life for low-paid workers? A whole lot of nothing.
For nearly a year, UNITE HERE and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) have pressed the Port of Portland to do something to improve wages and job security for hundreds of low-wage workers at Portland International Airport (PDX) — baggage handlers, wheelchair assistants, fuelers, cabin cleaners, and concessions workers.
What Port executives came up with — after months of “stakeholder” meetings — was five pages of management-speak, in which the public agency promises next to nothing. The document, presented to the Port of Portland Board of Commissioners Feb. 11, is full of sentences like these: “Integral to ensuring that airport workers, whether employees of the Port of Portland or the many contractors and concessionaire workers at PDX, are safe, healthy and able to sustain high quality work is the vigilant attention to rights and benefits afforded them. To this end the Port will monitor and enhance existing programs as well as chart paths to new benefits not currently in place.”
Say what? You can take a look at the document yourself here. We did our best to boil down the verbiage, and found just two tangible improvements:
- The Port will make it easier for employers to offer subsidized bus passes to workers.
- The Port might make a computer available for workers to search for new jobs.
The other bullet points in the 1,600-word document range from vague to meaningless: The Port will “continue” to do a variety of things it’s already doing; it will “partner with state agencies” to tell workers how to sign up for Obamacare; it will “join with” the City of Portland and the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries to tell airport employers about sick leave; it will make lease-holders submit written plans on how to avoid “disruptive labor strife;” it will require contractors to detail the “minimum level of working conditions” they themselves set for employees; and on and on. There are even bullet points touting past achievements — like last November’s airport job fair for pink-slipped concessions workers. The one promising item would come in 2016, when the Port would include “wages and benefits, quality of safety training, and career development programs” in its criteria for evaluating and scoring concessions proposals.
PDX is a highly desirable workplace, PDX management says
The document was written by a cross-departmental group of 14 senior managers from human resources, legal, operations, public affairs, and finance.
Nowhere does the management-written draft admit there’s a problem with low wages at the airport. In fact, it lauds PDX as “a highly desirable workplace,” and “an excellent working environment in terms of safety, security and opportunities for advancement and mutual success.”
Eight years and still at minimum wage? That’s disgusting.” — ILWU Local 8 President Bruce Holte, one of two union members on the Port of Portland Board of Commissioners
In October, Wyatt told board members he’d bring them a “social equity” proposal to vote on. But in the draft proposal his staff presented Feb. 11, known as the “PDX Workplace Initiative,” the word “equity” was nowhere to be found.
Port of Portland public affairs director Kristen Leonard, returning a phone call from the Labor Press, explained that the “equity” component will come later in a multi-year process. As Leonard outlined in her PowerPoint presentation to the board, the “Port Strategic Plan Social Equity Initiative Timeline” will start with a “Social Equity Assessment” this year, followed by “Implement Workplace Initiative Strategy” and “Refine Social Equity Priorities” in 2016. Finally, in 2017, the Port would “Develop Social Equity Plan” and “Begin Implementation.”
At the monthly board meetings, Port executives won’t stop talking about how Travel + Leisure magazine rated PDX as America’s #1 airport (in 2013). But back on the ground, PDX is an airport full of workers who can’t afford air travel, or even necessities like health insurance or electricity. During public comment at the end of the Feb. 11 meeting, Kasil Kapriel, an immigrant worker from Micronesia, told board members that she had to turn to the Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization for help with her electric bill. That’s because after eight years at her job helping wheelchair-bound airline passengers, she still makes minimum wage.
“We shouldn’t have to depend on public assistance if we work at the nation’s best airport,” Kapriel told board members.
“Eight years and still at minimum wage? That’s disgusting,” reacted International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 8 President Bruce Holte, one of two union members on the nine-member board.
Board Chair Jim Carter — a former top lawyer at Nike — added his own comment later on: “It’s easy to react, ‘oh my God, eight years at minimum wage.’ Carter said at the meeting. “It’s more significant to figure out why that’s happening, and in that individual situation, what it is about the workplace, themselves, the culture, the challenges that they have, to address these things. It is not a simple solution.”
During Leonard’s PowerPoint presentation, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, the other labor voice on the board, sat with his arms folded.
“As written, it doesn’t lift workers,” Chamberlain told the Labor Press by phone after the meeting. “And it doesn’t recognize that many of the policies at the Port … come at a cost to the workers.”
The board will next meet March 11, and a vote on the proposal is scheduled for April 8.
Nice work if you can get it
Consultant gets $197 an hour to develop the “equity” policy
The Port of Portland hasn’t done much to help impoverished airport workers, but its new “social equity” initiative is already benefiting some high-paid consultants. Last August, the Port agreed to pay $34,869 to a Eugene sustainability consultancy to conduct a “social equity audit.” Good Company, the consultancy, will “define and recommend opportunities to further integrate social equity consideration into Port program, practices, partnerships, and planning.” The contract for that work specifies a project manager at $197 an hour, a lead research associate at $117 an hour, and an administrative support person at $70 an hour, plus reimbursement for airfare, lodging, and meals as needed. The company will also conduct “external interviews, community outreach, and a presentation to Port” and is supposed to complete the work by April 15.