Columbia Gorge behavioral health provider breaks labor law and pays a price

By Don McIntosh

It’s against Oregon law for state and local governments to spend tax dollars trying to stop their employees from unionizing. But an intergovernmental agency in the Columbia Gorge did it anyway, and now must pay a $3,000 civil penalty and reimburse Oregon AFSCME roughly $40,000 for legal fees.

Mid-Columbia Center for Living (MCCFL) provides mental health and addiction recovery services at clinics in The Dalles, Hood River, and Moro. On June 12, Oregon AFSCME turned in cards signed by 7 out of 10 of the agency’s 112 workers. Under state law that’s all it takes for public sector workers to get a union. But at the direction of chief executive officer June Gower, management distributed two anti-union fliers June 16 as well as anti-union talking points to managers. Gower did that after a legal review from Akin Blitz of the anti-union law firm Bullard Law. Given the prohibition on anti-union campaigning by Oregon public employers, that was some shoddy and expensive legal advice. And the fliers were laughably bad. [See them here.]

“Leadership would prefer to continue our 1-to-1 relationship with employees,” one flier said. No doubt. But employees had already said they’d prefer a 112-to-1 relationship with leadership.

Workers celebrated winning a union with a picnic and cake, in this case colored AFSCME green.

That’s not all. After the union was certified July 6, management continued to act as if it never happened, cutting hours and eliminating benefits for new hires, rewriting the policy manual, and making other changes without first bargaining with the workers’ union about it. Changes like that are what had led workers to seek union representation in the first place — Gower had shortened work days and then the work week, cutting pay 20%.

On Aug. 6, Gower announced that MCCFL was terminating its contract with the state of Oregon to help about 300 developmentally disabled clients, ostensibly for budgetary savings. The 11 workers in MCCFL’s Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Services department would be laid off as of Sept. 30. It was a unit that made money for the organization, and Gower didn’t discuss it with her board before making the decision. Oregon AFSCME representative Dennis Ziemer thinks management believed erroneously that the department was the center of union activity. The State of Oregon shifted the contract to Tigard-headquartered non-profit Community Living Case Management, which hired all of the bargaining unit members working in that unit effective October 1, 2020, and recognized the union as their bargaining representative.

Oregon AFSCME filed an unfair labor practice charge Aug. 18, which led to a two-day hearing Oct. 21-22 before an administrative law judge. Another two-day hearing was scheduled for November, but MCCFL decided to settle the charges rather than incur more legal expense.

Under the terms of the settlement, besides the penalty and attorney fees, MCCFL will also restore the status quo by rescinding the new employee manual, giving benefits and full-time status to the new hire, and bargaining with the union over the impact of the layoffs.

Gower declined to be interviewed, but released a short statement.

Ziemer thinks management’s anti-union posture only solidified union support among the workers.

Bargaining over a first union contract has been under way since Sept. 17.


MORE: Read the settlement here.

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