By DON McINTOSH
Growing up Mormon, Ryan Sotomayor knew nothing about unions, and signing a union card was frowned on in church teaching. But a union conscience was already alive and well by the time he got his first job offer as a teenager in 1994. For over a year he’d been asking about openings at Bales Thriftway in Portland’s Cedar Mill neighborhood. Now a manager offered him a job, but at orientation, he was told he’d have to cross a picket line; the store’s regular employees were on strike.
“Internally I was like, ‘This isn’t right,’” Sotomayor recalls. “There were people that already had the job, and they just wanted a better situation.”
It was an instinct that stayed with him. Now 45, Sotomayor is the new full-time business manager for Laborers Local 483, which represents 1,000 municipal employees at the City of Portland, the Oregon Zoo, and several other public employers.
After turning down the job as a strikebreaker, Sotomayor finished high school, moved to Alaska, and got a communications degree from University of Alaska. With a partner he met in a creative writing class, he returned to the Portland area in 2008. He got a job at Porch Light, a shelter for homeless teens run by Janus Youth Programs. At the time, it was a Wobbly shop. [“Wobbly” is slang for a member of the militant Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) union.]
“I signed up, and the next day I was on the bargaining team. The Wobblies are very DIY.”
Sotomayor says bargaining was eye opening. The union wanted 75-cent raises for workers making under $10 an hour, plus extra pay for bilingual workers.
“[Management’s] response was basically, ‘Have you looked outside? There’s no money for anything.’”
Sotomayor was promoted out of the union and worked as a Porch Light supervisor a few years, then worked gigs as facilities manager and residential counselor.
In 2016, with his wife about to have a baby, it was time for a job with benefits. He hired on with the City of Portland, making $15.15 as a recreation facility technician at the Parks and Recreation Bureau. Local 483 had just won a first contract at the Rec centers, and Sotomayor took the trouble to read the contract.
“I was like, ‘I’m supposed to be getting shift differential!’” He tried to file a grievance, but found he’d waited too long. He decided to get active in the local.
“If you show up and you ask enough questions, people are gonna give you a job to do,” Sotomayor says. He became a union steward, then recording secretary. In September 2022, he was appointed business manager after Farrell Richartz—who’d served in that position since 2016—stepped down. Sotomayor will serve at least to July 30, 2023, filling out Richartz’ elected term. He’s the local’s first top officer from Parks and Rec.
Sotomayor is no longer a member of the Church of Latter Day Saints. but his experience of doing mission work in Arkansas and Tennessee—and his recollection of a well-organized community that takes care of its own—will serve him well as business manager. For one, he’s not afraid to visit work sites or knock on doors.
Since the U.S. Supreme Court in its 2018 Janus decision made all public sector union dues voluntary, public sector unions have to constantly organize represented employees in order to survive. Sotomayor says Local 483 has created a culture where the union never gives up on the workers they represent, even those that might have held a grudge against the union for 20 years.
“Everybody changes,” Sotomayor told the Labor Press. “We should all be granted the grace to have the capacity to change our minds.”
Local 483 must also do constant outreach to new members, who get creepy mailers from the antiunion Freedom Foundation trying to lure them into dropping union membership.
“I find that most people actually don’t want to drop,” Sotomayor says. And for those that do, it’s usually because they’re feeling pinched financially. Local 483 has an answer for that—the opportunity to do paid work for the local once a month, earning back the dues they pay to maintain their status as members. All that effort has kept membership rates over 80%, and as high as 96% in some represented work groups.
Sotomayor comes on as a leader at a time when Local 483 is gearing up for a major fight. The contract for its biggest barganing unit—Portland City Laborers—expired June 30, 2022, and members are determined to strike if the City doesn’t offer them raises that keep up with inflation. These are the folks who maintain parks, roads, and the city sewage treatment system. Much of the unit works outdoors, and they’re feeling less safe.
“The job has changed in the past five years, particularly with our houseless population,” Sotomayor said. “You have parks techs that show up and there’s a pile of 50 needles in front of the restroom.”
Some of their managers have been working from home for nearly three years, but workers never got a break. The rent’s been rising, and so have gas and food prices. If the City sticks to its final offer of 5% not long after inflation pushed prices up 9%, 630 city workers will be walking off the job in February.
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