Contract fight looms for City of Portland laborers


SAFETY FIRST Portland park maintenance worker Lily Gilbert took her message directly to City Council: She and her coworkers are tired of feeling unsafe on the job.

After seven months of bargaining, workers across three City of Portland bureaus have signaled they’re willing to strike if they don’t get a fair contract. 

Laborers Local 483 represents about 630 city workers who are covered under the Portland City Laborers contract. In October, members voted by 95% to authorize a work stoppage if needed.

Workers covered by the Portland City Laborers contract are concentrated in the Transportation, Parks & Recreation and Environmental Services bureaus. It’s a diverse group of jobs, including workers handling sewer repair, parking meter maintenance, parks upkeep, environmental lab work, and wastewater treatment plant maintenance.

Their contract was last negotiated in 2017, and was set to expire in June 2021. But because of uncertainty around COVID-19, Local 483 and the City extended it through June 2022. That means workers haven’t gotten cost-of-living adjustments in over a year, and those were 1.6%. Meanwhile, annual inflation hit 7% in 2021 and is averaging 7.7% for 2022.

“We’re inching towards 15% lost value of our wages,” says James O’Laughlen, a field representative for Local 483 and former City wastewater operator.

Bargaining has been underway since March and is only now getting into wage proposals. In the previous contract, annual cost-of-living adjustments were tied to the consumer price index, but capped at 5%. Given current inflation figures, Local 483 is proposing that those caps be removed for the new contract, and cost-of-living adjustments be directly tied to inflation. The union also proposes 3.5% across the board raises.

All told, that would result in about a 10% wage increase in the first year of the contract.  Workers say that’s long overdue, and have taken that message directly to the Portland City Council.

Laborers to City Council: We need a raise

“We need a wage increase that reflects our professionalism, our sacrifices and the cost of inflation,” said Jayne Lacey in testimony before the Council on Oct. 26. Lacey, who’s worked for the City as an arborist for 19 years, said the job used to be sought after. It used to be competitive. That’s changed in recent years.

Ted Harvey, a concrete finisher who’s worked for the City for nearly 21 years, shared similar concerns at the City Council meeting on November 2. Harvey and his coworkers install sidewalk ramps on the corners of intersections to comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. Because of a 2018 legal settlement, their workload has increased dramatically, but their wages have stayed stagnant. Finishers make $35.70 an hour, while their counterparts in cities like Tacoma and Sacramento make at least $40 an hour. 

“We can’t hire people,” Harvey said. 

Harvey says during a recent hiring round, four people applied. Two of them didn’t show up to their interviews, and two didn’t have enough experience. When Harvey applied 21 years ago, there were 103 applicants.

Unsafe in the city

City laborers also told City Council they feel less safe on the job, and want the City to do something about it.

“The role of a city worker has changed dramatically over the past several years,” Lacey said when she spoke at City Council Oct. 26. “We are social workers, camp counselors, and a janitorial service.”

Lily Gilbert, horticulturist and former park technician, told City Council she and her coworkers suffer needlepricks while cleaning up park bathrooms, and deal with the fear and uncertainty of potential exposure to bloodborne pathogens. 

“Myself and other maintenance workers are concerned with safety and know that the job conditions have significantly changed from what they once were,” Gilbert said. “When we go out to work in the field, we’re usually alone, often confronted with an erratic, unstable public. Workers have been assaulted, accosted, screamed at and verbally abused. I work in a state of hypervigilance, especially at sites where I feel isolated and vulnerable. This can be exhausting.”

All five City Council members told Lacey and Gilbert they appreciated their remarks. 

But it’s unclear how much that gratitude will extend to the bargaining table. O’Laughlen reported that it feels like the City has been dragging out negotiations.

The two sides will discuss economic proposals for the first time on Nov. 15, after this issue went to press. That’s more than four months after the old contract expired.


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