City unions in Portland near the brink of a strike


Contentious contract negotiations between trade unions and the City of Portland became still more bitter this week, as unions accused City management of interfering in strike authorization votes.

District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU), which bargains for about 1,200 City employees, has been weighing a strike in recent weeks, after 18 months of bargaining with the City did not bring an acceptable contract. DCTU includes members of AFSCME Local 189, IBEW Local 48, Machinists Local 1005, Operating Engineers Local 701, Plumbers and Steamfitters Local 290, and Painters District Council 5.

DCTU unions began holding strike authorization votes on Jan. 10 and planned to conclude on Jan. 19. But on Jan. 18, the unions outlined allegations from City workers that managers were engaging in illegal interference in the strike votes.

Rob Martineau, president of DCTU, said managers were telling newly union-represented workers that they were in fact not represented and could not vote in the strike authorization. He said managers were also conducting informal polls on members’ union activity in violation of the law, and were generally “trying to create confusion and intimidate people.”

Heather Hafer, a spokesperson for the City’s Office of Management and Finance, said by email that the City is reviewing the complaint and would not comment on pending litigation.

“The City supports and values its union members and respects employees’ rights to participate in all protected collective bargaining activities,” Hafer wrote.

After working toward a contract since summer 2020, the two sides remained far apart in mid-December 2021, and DCTU declared an impasse. On Dec. 20, both sides submitted their “last, best and final” offers, which have some significant differences. The City modified its offer slightly in an updated proposal submitted Jan. 11. As of Jan. 18, when this issue of the Labor Press went to print, the two sides had not come to an agreement but had another all-day mediation session scheduled for Jan. 19.

Prior to the votes’ conclusion, Will Lukens, a business representative for DCTU-affiliated Machinists District Lodge W24, anticipated strong support for the strike pre-authorization among members, in part because of the length of the negotiation process.

“They’re tired of dragging this thing out,” he said.

Disagreement on wages

DCTU’s last contract with the City expired over a year ago, and the drawn-out bargaining process without an agreement has contributed to the momentum for a strike.

Both sides have agreed to a cost of living (COLA) increase of 1.6% retroactive to July 1. They’ve also agreed to COLA increases of between 1% and 5% in 2022 and 2023, depending on the increase in the Consumer Price Index. 

But there are a handful of sticking points, including DCTU’s proposal for across-the-board 2% wage increases for all employees in the first and second year of the contract. The City doesn’t propose any across-the-board increase. Instead, the City is offering $3,000 in one-time bonus payments for existing employees.

Union officers say a one-time bonus isn’t going to cut it; DCTU workers want wage increases.

“People feel really motivated and upset, our members,” said Jacob Brostoff, vice president of AFSCME Local 189. “We demand respect and fair compensation. We want to be able to live in the city that we work in.”

Brostoff noted that trades workers in the private sector have seen significant wage increases recently, raises that haven’t been replicated for municipal workers.

DCTU is also proposing additional hourly compensation for swing shift ($2), night shift ($3.50) and relief shift ($3.50), while the city is offering less, at $1.69, $2.25 and $2.25, respectively. The two sides disagree about changes to shift start times as well.

This is the latest in a string of contentious contract negotiations between the City of Portland and DCTU. DCTU unions authorized a strike in 2017, but ultimately reached an agreement with the City before going on strike. They went through a similar process in 2014, coming close to a strike notice before reaching an agreement with the City.

Brostoff of AFSCME said the increasingly contentious bargaining processes are indicative of the City taking its workers for granted. He said it’s particularly insulting this time around, because workers have faced difficult conditions due to COVID-19 and the wildfires in recent summers.

“Everyone’s been working very hard during this extremely difficult time,” Brostoff said. “We deserve to be compensated for that work in a fair way.”

Rally in solidarity

To show support for the unions, community groups rallied outside City Hall Jan. 8. The Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Portland Jobs With Justice sponsored the event, expressing support for DCTU members. The rally drew about 200 attendees. Speakers included City workers who are members of DCTU.

Portland DSA co-chair Laura Wadlin, who’s also secretary of American Federation of Teachers Local 2277, said to win big, unions need community support. That’s why her group is committed to backing workers who are gearing up to strike.

“DCTU members even considering taking that brave step is something that we have to come out and show our support for,” Wadlin told the Labor Press.

Community groups planned another rally set for Jan. 18.



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