Questions for Portland City Commissioner Nick Fish

Nick Fish
Nick Fish, incumbent Portland City Commissioner, has been in City Council since 2008. Before that he represented unions as an attorney in New York. On the council, he supported the paid sick leave ordinance and helped implement community benefits agreements on city construction projects, which put union members to work and gave opportunities to women and minorities. He’s endorsed by a broad cross-section of labor organizations: Northwest Oregon Labor Council, Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council, AFSCME Local 189, Fire Fighters Local 43, IBEW Local 48, Teamsters Joint Council 37, Painters District Council 5, Laborers District Council and Local 483, Portland Association of Teachers, Professional and Technical Employees Local 17, SEIU Local 49 and Local 503, Pacific Regional Council of Carpenters, and UFCW Local 555. Labor Press reporter Don McIntosh spoke with him by phone about battling Uber, his history as a New York labor lawyer, his relationships with labor, and much much more. 

You’ve been city commissioner now 10 years. For our readership of union members and working people, what would you say you’re most proud of that you’ve accomplished so far?

That’s a great question. I have been the sponsor of a number of innovative solutions to our housing crisis. I have helped to reform our utilities and restore public trust. I have pushed to invest in East Portland and to make sure that East Portland gets its fair share of city services.

Are there signature ordinances you were the lead on?

I helped create the Portland Housing Bureau, which was very complicated and essentially brought all the funding and services under one roof, and that was one of my early proudest moments. I led an effort to preserve affordable housing for older adults and the disabled where 11 different buildings in the downtown core were at risk. We converted them all to longterm nonprofit ownership and saved all the housing.

I laid the groundwork for a significant boost in investment in parks in East Portland through something called E-205. And now working with Commissioner Fritz we’re investing tens of millions of dollars of developer fees to build out the parks. I’ve been the council lead on Superfund. And I have insisted that the jobs and the opportunities stay home so that we can invest as much of that money locally as possible. I’ve been a very strong voice for working families, proud to support paid sick leave and community benefits agreements, as well as raising the wages and standards of parks employees. In the last five years, I’ve focused on restoring trust in our utilities.

How specifically?

Well, when I took over utilities, we had a lawsuit over spending.

The loo and that kind of thing?

Yeah, John DiLorenzo had a lawsuit challenging $125 million of spending. We also had a very contentious debate over a water district, essentially a takeover of the utilities. At the time that I was asked to lead the utilities, we had the lawsuit, we had the water district fight, and frankly there were questions in our community about our spending priorities. And in five years, we’ve changed virtually every aspect of our work. We brought new leaders in. We developed new plans, getting back to basic services. We worked hard to keep rate increases down. We created new oversight bodies. The Portland Utility Board was something I launched after establishing a blue ribbon commission, and we invited the Citizens Utility Board to provide oversight. It’s the first time they’ve ever provided oversight of a public utility. We developed an ambitious plan to invest in resilience so the system would survive the “Big One.” We’ve complied with very complicated federal regulations. And along the way I think we’ve reconnected with the people we serve and we’ve restored public trust in utilities. When we do rate hearings now, very few people show up. I think there’s a confidence that they’re being run for the benefit of ratepayers and that our focus is on basic services. I’m very proud to have led them through this period of transition.

City Council obviously has only a limited ability to control the world. But what policies do you think are at stake for working people at City Council in the next few years?

I think the biggest challenge for working people is to be able to live in Portland with rising rents and the cost of home ownership. More and more working families are being priced out of our city. There’s a number of things we’re going to have to do to remedy that. We must continue to build on the renter protections we adopted so that people don’t face arbitrary no-cause evictions, and that we bring some rationality to the marketplace. And then significantly boost production of affordable homes so people can afford to live here. I particularly want to see focus on investing in affordable homes near schools. One of the biggest challenges that we face because of this housing market is families are forced to move, and that means children’s lives are being disrupted, making it harder for them to go to school and focus on their schoolwork. We need to bring some stability there, and that’s why I think one of our priorities going forward should be to invest in affordable homes that are close to our schools — to bring stability to the lives of our children. So housing is the number one challenge. And I guess what you often hear is, “We don’t want to become another San Francisco, where the affluent and the poor live, and the working class and the middle class have been priced out and have left the city.” So that’s probably our most significant challenge.

Another challenge that we face has to do with labor standards generally. We have a pretty robust public sector union movement in this state. At the City we have very deep relations with our public sector unions, but for people who are in the private sector and who are concerned about wages and working conditions, they face particular challenges, especially in light of the rollbacks that are happening in Washington, D.C. So I think overall, Trump’s war on labor trickles down and gives people fewer choices. If we want a strong middle class, we’ve got to make sure people have the right to join unions of their choice, and we should remove as many artificial barriers as possible. And we’re seeing the reverse happen nationally.

If I may, back to housing, you voted for the renter relocation ordinance, which I would describe as the closest thing the city could do to get to rent control while still being legal —because that’s barred by state law. Of course, [House speaker] Tina Kotek would like to remove that restriction, and if at some point she succeeds, is that something that you would favor that at city Council and separately the no-cause eviction?

Yeah, the Council has been consistent now for many years in advocating for lifting the preemption that prevents us from even exploring rent stabilization and an end to no-cause evictions. What the mayor and Commissioner Eudaly have all said is if we can lift the pre-emption, then we’ll have a robust public process to talk about reasonable protections in the marketplace, and we’ll work with the community to develop them. Some form of rent stabilization to prevent unreasonably high rent increases, and reforms to no-cause evictions so that people are not at the whim of landlords — both of those would be considered by Portland. But at this point, until we lift the pre-emption, the best that we could do was support a package of renter relocation assistance, which is an imperfect tool but has helped a lot of people.

You were in the two-person minority who voted against the city’s rule allowing Uber and Lyft to operate on rather unequal terms with the cab companies. I understand there’s interest in revisiting those regulations. Can you talk about that and what your position is?

Yeah, one of my big concerns watching how Uber came into this market is the new model coming out of Silicon Valley: create a new technology; claim to be an app, not an industry; run over consumers and regulators; and flex your muscle and then seek to evade accountability. Uber was perhaps the worst and most egregious example of that. My job as city commissioner is not to pick winners and losers in the marketplace but to ensure that workers and consumers are protected. And that’s been my concern from Day One, and why I have cast the votes that I have, including being in the minority in terms of allowing Uber to come in. Now subsequent to the vote that allowed Uber to operate, they tried to preempt local regulations altogether by going to Salem, they withheld information about the data breach, and we learned about Greyball, which was their use of technology to avoid regulators. They have been chronic bad actors. Recently at my suggestion, they issued an apology to the City, which I think is a good start. They wrote a written letter of apology. At the end of the day, they’ll be judged on the basis of deeds, not words. I think the next thing we need to consider is what kind of oversight we have for what’s called TNCs [transportation network companies] generally, including Uber. And I think we should have a separate body that regulates TNCs where people can go to complain about wage claims and the like. So I’ve been in conversation with Tom Chamberlain at the AFL-CIO and others about setting up the equivalent of a TNC wage board which would have oversight of terms and conditions of employment for Uber and Lyft drivers. I hope to get some traction on that idea.

Here’s a strange question to ask a City Commissioner, but it’s a big one for labor. To the extent you might find yourself becoming a Congressman one day, what’s your position on NAFTA and its clone trade agreements?

I have no interest in being a Congressman.

So you don’t have to answer that question I guess.

We have no control over the country’s trade agreements. My general critique of a number of trade agreements we have entered into is that they do not have adequate protection for labor standards, and that both labor and environmental standards which are important to this country have been compromised through these trade agreements. But I’m a city commissioner and we focus on potholes and other mundane things.

I’ve been told that you have sometimes in the past, behind the scenes, helped get deals when collective-bargaining broke down, helped get contracts for public-sector unions at the City that they felt like they could live with. Is that something you would want to share details of?

Well, let me take talk more generally. For 20 years before I was elected, I practiced law, and my focus was on civil rights and labor. When I was in New York before coming out to Oregon, I represented mostly private sector unions, so I have a lot of experience with the collective bargaining process, and I have a deep commitment to the values of the labor movement. It’s why I made a promise when I ran for office that I would have a labor liaison, which I have had during my entire tenure. And in the last few years, I asked my chief of staff to be the labor liaison, because I wanted the most important person on my team to serve as my representative. I meet with my labor partners regularly, and one of the purposes of our meetings is to do problem-solving upstream before they become bigger disputes. And it’s one of the reasons why I think just about every public and private sector union that has endorsed in this race is supporting me, because they know my values, they know my history, and they have seen the impacts of having someone like me in a city commissioner position. The last two labor negotiations were complicated, and there was some hard bargaining, and I have always tried behind the scenes to help both the city and our partners find common ground. I think that’s one of my jobs. Because I’m trusted by labor, that gives me, I think, a unique role to play. So yes, it’s not something I advertise, but it has been part of my view of the job is to help the parties reach a fair agreement for both sides, which I think we did recently. And I have been part of behind-the-scenes conversations to make that happen.

If I could give you a magic wand and assure you that you have three votes on the council to pass ordinances, is there a short list of things that would improve life for working people in Portland that you would enact?

Well, I have an ambitious plan coming to this Council soon — to provide discounts to cost-burdened rate payers, where we’re going to extend the discount program to people who are renters and not just homeowners. I hope we have at least three votes to do that. Historically our discount programs only benefited homeowners.

If I had three votes and I could also change the world, I would bring down the temperature on hate and intolerance in our community generally. We talk about wanting to be a more welcoming city and to be a place where immigrants and refugees from around the world feel welcome, but we still have a lot of work to do. So if I could do it legislatively and help promote an environment of love and mutual respect, I would do that.

Obviously as a former labor lawyer and civil rights lawyer, I am deeply committed to making sure people are treated fairly. I don’t like bullies. I don’t like people who mistreat others, and particularly people who take advantage of consumers and workers. So I would always use my platform to stand up for working families.

You know, I wish we had more revenue. We’re having to make some very tough choices in this budget, although I think it’s possible we will actually agree on some new revenue. But we need to continue to fund the basic services that people expect, that are at the core of the quality of life we enjoy. I hope we continue to do that.

I have a particular interest in reducing traffic fatalities. I lost my mother in a car accident. I’m passionate about something called Vision Zero. So I would hope that we continue to invest in saving lives on our streets and sidewalks.

And every time that we have an opportunity to negotiate a new contract with one of our labor partners, I think our touchstone should be: How do we recruit and retain the best workforce possible, how do we set an example for other employers, and how do we invest in our workers? And those are the values which have guided my thinking around collective bargaining.

Are there particular labor leaders that you’re close to or that you have worked closely with?

Well I would say there are a number of them. Jeff Anderson at UFCW 555 has been a great supporter. Obviously there are a number of people at the Teamsters that I’m close to, and they have been very concerned about the impact of autonomous vehicles on their industry. Rob Martineau and Rob Wheaton at AFSCME have been terrific partners, and I’m so proud to have AFSCME 189’s support. Felisa Hagins at SEIU has been a longtime friend and partner in lots of work, and so I’m honored again to have SEIU 49‘s endorsement. I have deep relationships in the building trades from Bob Tackett to Willy Myers. We are a small enough town that relationships really matter, and I don’t know the last time someone basically unified the labor movement behind a City Council race, but I think we’ve come as close as anyone has in terms of getting almost wall-to-wall labor support. And at every union, I have a personal relationship with someone in leadership, where we work together on issues of concern that affect janitors, that affect construction workers, service workers, city workers, firefighters. I have a wonderful relationship with the senior team at the firefighters. So I pride myself on building these relationships, and then I also pride myself on taking the time to make sure that the partnership is strong and that we’re working upstream to avoid problems and to work things out before they become big problems.

Do you have a position on whether the city ought to be adopting Project Labor Agreements across the board for big projects?

I was an early supporter of the Community Benefits Agreement pilot [project], and the two most successful pilots occurred at the Water Bureau under my watch. So I not only support that in concept, but we made it work. The changes to the pilot that we adopted ensure that our large-scale capital projects are covered by a Community Benefits Agreement, and when I added up all the projects in the pipeline at the utilities and potentially through Superfund you get up to a billion dollars.

And we’ve got at least a half billion dollars of projects in the pipeline with utilities, just with the reservoirs, resilient pipes and filtration. So I believe very strongly that the idea here is to maintain area standards, and ensure that there are apprenticeships and opportunities for growth in investment in companies that historically haven’t been at the table, and that’s women and minority owned businesses. I think generally we got it right — [by requiring community benefits agreements on construction contracts] above $25 million, which is the floor. We’ve agreed after a year to come back and take a look at how we treat contracts below $25 million, and if there is more fine-tuning we need to improve the system, I’ll be open to those suggestions.

You mentioned that you represented unions in the past, in New York. Any particular ones come to mind?

Yeah, I represented United Auto Workers locals, and entertainment locals like NABET. My firm represented 1199, the health and hospital workers union. Dennis Rivera was the long term president. So we represented pretty progressive unions.

What kinds of cases?

I was involved in negotiating contracts, administrative hearings before the National Labor Relations Board, wage and hour cases, and discrimination claims. And then, since we represented unions, I did a fair number of administrative cases around unfair labor practices. And I had a caseload of routine arbitrations involving everything from wage and hour cases to past practices, and up the ladder.

How long did you do that?

I did that for 10 years. I helped actually build the firm to a position of prominence. Working with the UAW, with 1199 (which later became an SEIU local), some entertainment locals, and a fair amount of civil rights work, we had a wonderful practice. I was involved in every facet of being a labor lawyer and basically served as general counsel to a number of unions. There were a couple of Teamster locals we represented. I did some reform work where some locals that were trusteed needed to have someone come in and put things in order, and I was either tapped by an administrative body or a court.

So I had a wonderful practice, and what changed in my life was my wife got a job teaching at Portland State University. So we moved the family west. Patty is the first woman on her mother’s side of the family to graduate from high school, so when she got recruited by Portland State, it was really a big deal. She took the job and we moved out West. I wasn’t licensed here. I didn’t have any clients here. I probably got the short end, initially, of the transition. But things worked out for her and for me.

Anything else we haven’t covered that we should include?

I would just say that I spent 20 years as a lawyer primarily focused on labor and civil rights, and if you sort of think of that at the higher level it was primarily focused on justice, issues of justice and fairness. I had a rewarding career, and then I had a chance to be in public service serving on the council. I have taken the values which shaped my work as a lawyer and translated them into my work as a commissioner. I am extremely proud to have the breadth of support in the labor movement and among working families for my reelection. Again, it’s almost wall-to-wall support, and we went in the old-fashioned way and filled out questionnaires and met with committees and made the case. I am just gratified at the level of confidence the labor movement has in me, and I’m looking forward to my work continuing to serve.

Going back to Uber: In some ways Uber foreshadows a shift in our economy. Very sophisticated out-of-state companies in Silicon Valley came up with a new business model where they took their cut off the top and shifted a lot of the risk to local jurisdictions, workers and consumers. And we’re seeing that in not just rideshare companies but we’re seeing it in short term rentals and a whole host of other related industries. And perhaps this is the future of the workplace, to which I would say: We need to be very vigilant.

Going back to something I said earlier, as a city commissioner, my job is not to pick winners and losers in the marketplace; my job is to make sure that workers and consumers are treated fairly. The most egregious examples that I’ve seen during my service was the way Uber treated the city, workers and consumers when they came into town and initially operated illegally. I don’t believe in rewarding bad behavior, which is why I voted no. I’m not against new technology, but I think people need to play by the rules. And we must adhere to community standards. I will always stand up for the rights of working people and make sure they’re treated fairly in this economy. And I’ll always try to use my experience in the labor movement to strengthen relationships we have with our public sector partners. When people feel valued and they’re paid fairly, then the public gets a great return in terms of the commitment workers make to their jobs. I believe everyone deserves to be treated fairly, and that’s what I’ve tried to bring in my job as a city commissioner. And I hope to have the honor of continuing to serve.

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