By Don McIntosh
It seemed at first like a bomb had landed. In January, as Laborers Local 483 prepared to bargain a new union contract for workers at the Oregon Zoo, management notified the union that it was planning to contract out food service to Aramark. Up to 180 low-wage union members in the Zoo’s cafes and catering operations would lose their jobs — four years and one union contract after they tried to improve conditions by joining Local 483. Local 483 represents zookeepers and other workers at Oregon Zoo, which is run by Metro, the regional government for the Portland metropolitan area.
Privatization — hiring a private contractor to replace public employees — is usually seen by public employee unions like Local 483 as a mortal threat. But this time, members of the union bargaining team had leverage: The union contract was still in effect through June 30, and it contained a clause barring the contracting out of union-represented work. Local 483 filed a grievance alleging that the plan to privatize violated that contract, and the two sides prepared for a binding arbitration that would decide the matter.
But instead of rolling the dice with an arbitrator, Local 483 with the help of attorney Barbara Diamond negotiated an agreement with Metro that will improve conditions both for the workers who will now be Aramark employees, and for some of the Zoo bargaining unit members they’ll be leaving behind.
Thanks to the agreement, when Aramark takes over food service at the Zoo Jan. 14, it will hire all the Zoo’s current food service workers. They’ll keep their union, and will bargain a new contract that by agreement with Metro will have some minimum conditions: They’ll make at least as much per hour as they’re currently making; they’ll be allowed to accept tips for the first time; and they’ll get at least $100 a month toward health insurance. Food service workers approved the agreement overwhelmingly in votes held Oct. 28-31.
Because Aramark is a large private business, workers will also be protected by Oregon’s new fair scheduling law, which requires that they be compensated for last-minute schedule changes.
Aramark already manages concessions at other Metro facilities: the Oregon Convention Center, Expo Center, and Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Workers at those facilities are represented by UNITE HERE Local 8.
As part of the contracting out settlement, Metro also tentatively agreed to a $15-an-hour minimum wage for all of its own union employees, retroactive to the June 30, 2018 expiration of the previous contract. It also agreed to rein in its longstanding reliance on “permatemps.” After two years of working in positions classified as temporary, workers will no longer be considered at-will employees, and will have the right to contest unfair discipline through a grievance process and binding arbitration. Other terms of that contract are still being negotiated.
Going to $15 will a big raise for Zoo laborers like Nick Boehm. After 22 years cleaning restrooms, emptying trash and pressure washing Zoo grounds, Boehm earns $12.63 an hour.
“The zoo runs a year-round operation on seasonal temporary labor,” said Boehm, who serves on the Local 483 bargaining team. The new agreement makes progress toward ending that.