Multnomah County votes for labor harmony 

Multnomah County Commission: From left, Sharon Meieran, Susheela Jayapal, Chair Deborah Kafoury, Jessica Vega Pederson, and Lori Stegman (Photo by Motoya Nakamura/ Multnomah County from Jan. 3, 2019 swearing-in ceremony)

By Don McIntosh

The Oct. 21 vote was unanimous: Multnomah County commissioners want their non-profit contractors to respect workers’ rights to join a union. The resolution they passed 5-0 affirms support for a “labor harmony” initiative by Chair Deborah Kafoury’s office that will begin with preschool and mental health and drug treatment providers, and could expand to others later. 

Details are still to be worked out, but basically the resolution says non-profits that are awarded contracts in those two sectors will have to enter into labor harmony agreements with a union — most likely Oregon AFSCME, which represents hundreds of mental health and drug treatment workers locally, or possibly International Longshore and Warehouse Union  Local 5, which represents several preschool providers. Representatives of both unions were invited to speak at a hearing prior to the vote.

“This is the prototype for the future. We’re going to be tracking this really closely in the next two years to see how we can build on the labor harmony agreement. And to see the improvement of frontline workers in their wages, health care, and safer working conditions.” —AFSCME Local 88 vice president Raymond de Silva

Staff in Kafoury’s office have been working on the policy with county attorneys since 2017, when Oregon AFSCME made a report to commissioners about its United We Heal campaign. United We Heal is an effort to unionize behavioral health workers in order to improve workplace standards and improve the quality of care. Right now, wages are low and turnover is high in that sector. But Oregon AFSCME has several times faced vigorous anti-union campaigns by management at county-funded non- profits where workers tried to unionize.

Brandy Fishback, a union supporter at Central City Concern’s Blackburn Center described one of those cases to commissioners: A spring 2021 AFSCME union campaign at Blackburn had majority support, until management barraged workers with catered “learning fairs” and slick antiunion videos, resulting in a 35-14 vote to reject the union. Things might have gone differently if the labor harmony policy had been in place.

As outlined to commissioners at the hearing and an earlier Oct. 12 briefing, the goal of the labor harmony policy is to minimize disruption of services and promote a stable workforce while staying compliant with state and federal laws that constrain labor negotiations. The policy is modeled on a similar one in Seattle, and will apply to Multnomah County behavioral health and preschool service contracts worth more than $150,000. Contractors will be expected to certify a commitment to labor harmony and negotiate an agreement with a union within 60 days. It’s not clear what those agreements would entail, but they could include an agreement by the union not to strike or otherwise disrupt services, in return for some kind of commitment by the employer to honor workers’ rights to unionize. If a labor harmony agreement isn’t reached within 60 days the county would offer assistance and escalate to mediation, arbitration, and even termination of the contract and recovery of the county’s associated costs.

The resolution also calls for a review of the policy to be conducted within 24 months.

“This resolution and the executive rule are necessary in ensuring that workers who wish to have a voice in the workplace have a path to form a union without fear of intimidation and bullying from their boss,” said Oregon AFSCME executive director Stacey Chamberlain at the hearing.

“We know that in both of these sectors, having workers that are able to organize their workplaces will provide better services and outcomes for all,” said Raymond De Silva, vice president of AFSCME Local 88, which represents county and nonprofit workers. “They will be able to have a seat at the table in making decisions on issues of safety, training, equity, and better pay and benefits. All of which are factors in a stable workforce, which in turn, provides consistency of care for both populations we serve, particularly young children, and people needing behavioral health services.”

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