Refugee nonprofit won’t be union-neutral

By Don McIntosh

Immigrant & Refugee Community Organization (IRCO) — the non-profit hub of Portland-area efforts to resettle refugees — isn’t going to make it easy for its employees to unionize. After months of meetings with workers interested in unionizing, staff at Oregon AFSCME approached IRCO management with a request that the group stay neutral toward employee union efforts. Executive director Lee Po Cha declined, and hired management-side labor law firm Bullard Law.

IRCO union supporter Olivia Katbi-Smith at a March 16 union rally for workers at Little Big Burger.

IRCO employs around 200 full-time and part-time staff, plus hundreds more “casual” employees like interpreters. Funded primarily by government grants, the organization assists refugees in a myriad of ways, from English language classes to after-school programs, job placement, and help with food, rent and utilities.

Last year a small group of employees started talking with Oregon AFSCME, meeting at coffee shops and later at the union’s Portland hall.

Sahar Yarjani Muranovic, now a union-backed candidate running unopposed for David Douglas School Board, was one of them. She worked at IRCO as a volunteer  and training coordinator — until December 10, when she quit and sent a three-page letter to management explaining why. Among the reasons she cited: Immigrants and people of color make up most of the staff, but earn less than native-born white staff for the same work, and have a slower track to promotion.

Muranovic’s exit moved others to speak out. Dozens signed a petition to management. Dated Dec. 13, it accuses supervisors broadly of abusive practices and “microaggressions” and describes IRCO as a racially hostile environment. The petition calls for an outside “diversity, equity and inclusion” audit and asks management to be transparent about how IRCO is complying with a new state law requiring equal pay for comparable work.

IRCO employee Olivia Katbi-Smith — who in her off hours is the volunteer co-chair of the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America — had publicly spoken out in support of other union campaigns. She signed the petition.

After the petition, IRCO managers changed, says Katbi-Smith says: They started visiting workers for one-on-one “check-ins.” One manager took employees out to lunch and spoke against the union.

For three years, Katbi-Smith had worked part-time at IRCO   as a fundraising development assistant. Now, in an April 3 email, her manager said IRCO had decided to make her position full-time, and gave her one day to decide whether to take it, with termination if she declined.

When Katbi-Smith said she wouldn’t give up her second job — coaching track at Parkrose High School — IRCO terminated her, just weeks before a May 2 fundraising gala she was to have helped put on.

“So I’m confused,” Katbi- Smith wrote back in an incredulous email. “You’d be terminating me if I’m unable to work 40 hours because you’re … short staffed?”

In charges filed on her behalf with the National Labor Relations Board, AFSCME alleges her termination was anti-union retaliation, in violation of federal labor law.

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