Portland’s First Unitarian signs first union contract

Fifteen support workers at First Unitarian Church of Portland have ratified their first-ever union contract. That’s a rarity, because U.S. labor law doesn’t protect church workers’ right to unionize. But it doesn’t say they can’t unionize either, and in February, the downtown Portland church agreed to accept its workers’ decision to join Communications Workers of America Local 7901.

That wasn’t church leaders’ first reaction. Initially, senior pastor Bill Sinkford rejected the idea, and even published a blog post saying he didn’t believe recognizing a union would be in the best interest of the church. But an outcry by the famously social-activist congregation changed his mind, and the church community rallied to raise funds to increase wages.

The new agreement, which Sinkford announced Nov. 19, raises wages to $15 an hour, except for a six-month probationary period for new employees. That’s a big raise for most of the workers, who were earning $12 or even $10 an hour. And the raise is retroactive to July 1.

The contract also maintains the church’s existing vacation and retirement policies, and significantly, makes it a “just cause” workplace, where formerly it was an “at will” workplace. In a just cause workplace, managers can’t discipline or fire workers without offering a justification, and workers have some right to defend themselves.

The two-year contract will run through June 30, 2017. It covers administrative staff and sextons (church workers who clean and maintain building and grounds and operate audiovisual systems), but not child care staff. But all employees, not just the union-represented workers, will get at least $15 an hour under the church’s new policy.

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