City workers win wage gains after 3-day strike

NOT THIS TIME, TED: Outside a PBOT yard, strikers held the line against raises that lost ground to inflation. | PHOTOS BY CHERYL JUETTEN

By COLIN STAUB

Over 600 City of Portland workers struck for three days before reaching a deal with the City that provides larger raises. The strike featured an around-the-clock picket outside North Portland’s wastewater treatment plant, which drew a police presence after unsubstantiated allegations by Portland mayor Ted Wheeler of picket line violence.

The strike began at midnight on Thursday, Feb. 2, when members of Laborers Local 483 working inside the wastewater plant on North Columbia Boulevard walked out—to the cheers of supporters who had gathered outside. The workers, part of the Environmental Services bureau, were joined later that morning by workers in the Parks and Transportation bureaus. Strikers picketed throughout the day Thursday and Friday outside the Parks & Recreation bureau’s Mount Tabor Yard facility on Southeast Division Street and a Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT) maintenance center on North Kerby Avenue. 

But the focal point of the strike was the wastewater treatment plant, where a picket line was maintained 24 hours a day. That’s because—while the parks and street maintenance operations appeared to be largely shut down—the City tried to keep the wastewater treatment plant running, staffed by supervisors and others who crossed the picket line on their way in and out.

To be sure, picket line crossers, including trucks delivering chemicals, faced short delays and some choice remarks by picket supporters. But Friday morning, Mayor Ted Wheeler issued a public statement saying the City “received reports of illegal and sometimes violent activity in the beginning hours of the strike by Portland City Laborers.” He cited no specifics, but his statement was repeated by local news media, and from then on, Portland Police maintained a constant presence near the picket line.

“It’s a pretty bizarre use of City resources,” Local 483 business manager Ryan Sotomayor said Friday night, after two full days of picketing with police parked nearby.

“I think it’s kind of, ‘Suppressing the Labor Movement 101,’” said James O’Laughlen, field representative for Local 483. “First they paint us as unreasonable, say they don’t understand the issues, then when we stand up for ourselves, it’s ‘violence in the streets.’”

Early Sunday morning, after more than 15 hours of mediation, Local 483 and the City announced a tentative agreement on a new contract, ending the strike. Members are currently voting on that, with ballots due Feb. 24.

NEIGHBORS. COWORKERS. BROTHERS AND SISTERS. HR told the Local 483 bargaining team that if they granted the raises the union wanted, they’d have to give the same to all City workers. Local 483 members, like the Kerby Yard picketers above, would be happy to see that happen, and were joined on the picket line by other City workers.

‘A fair wage’

The local had been negotiating with City management since March. The previous contract expired June 30, but the two sides didn’t even begin discussing wages until October, and it was December before the City presented its economic offer: a 6% wage increase retroactive to July and another 6% in July 2023, along with “market” adjustments for specific jobs.

But Local 483 had been pushing for higher increases, largely because the union agreed to forgo regular cost-of-living adjustments (COLAs) during the pandemic, and because inflation was running between 6.5% and 9.1% during the entirety of contract negotiations. Local 483 proposed that COLAs be tied directly to the consumer price index, which measures inflation. The City proposed to cap COLAs at 5%, as it has in the past, meaning workers would lose purchasing power if inflation topped that.

“We’re just asking for something fair, not over and above,” said Kelly Landreth, a heavy equipment operator who has worked for PBOT for 22 years. “A fair wage.”

Picketing outside the PBOT facility on Thursday, Landreth said the increase the City was offering amounted to a pay cut with inflation. Workers said much the same at pickets across the city.

“All through COVID we’ve been taking concessions and agreeing to furloughs and not getting our COLA,” said Holland Reini, a welder for PBOT. “With how the economy is and how underpaid we are, we’re not keeping up with private industry.”

Reini does welding work on city infrastructure, replacing handrails, for example. She removes the damaged rail, orders materials, rebuilds it at a City shop and completes the reinstall.

Reini said welders doing comparable work make $6 per hour more in the private sector, and that fact makes it hard for the City to recruit new welders. Recent career fairs have been sparsely attended compared with a few years ago. And current City workers get burned out. They work hard to keep the city functioning during snow and ice, for example, but the thanks from management doesn’t translate into wage improvement.

“I love Portland, and I love PBOT, and I’m proud to be employed here,” Reini said. “We just need to be supported financially.”

Workers were increasingly frustrated in the months leading up to the strike, says five-year PBOT employee Connor McNie. They looked back with regret on their decision to accept a 1.6% wage increase rather than a full COLA after COVID hit. Contract negotiations were dragging on without a conclusion. “Everyone was kind of unhappy, and you could cut the tension just permeating the air with a knife,” McNie said.

McNie, who installs road signs and cleans graffiti for PBOT, said he sees City management spending huge amounts on studies and consulting contracts, and dramatically expanding office staff.

“I feel in my bones, in my heart, in the vibes in the air, that there is money out there for us to get this raise,” McNie said.

Picket line solidarity

On Friday, Reini and McNie were picketing outside Portland at an Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) facility at Southeast Ochoco St. and McLoughlin Blvd. Strikers began a picket there Feb. 3 after noticing that city street maintenance equipment had been moved to the state facility in Milwaukie. The equipment—backhoes and emergency response trucks—appeared to be staged at the site to be deployed in case of urgent street maintenance. But with no workers to operate it, a handful of supervisors were filling in. Strikers estimated the City’s traffic department had a total of two people, and its paving department had three—unless the City had strikebreakers staged at some other location.

Inside the Parks and PBOT facilities, little activity was visible. But at the wastewater treatment plant, City vehicles and apparently strike replacement workers crossed the picket line during each shift change. (Carrie Belding, the City’s designated spokesperson, says the City did not hire temporary workers, but rather used managers and City workers not involved in the strike to fill in.) The picket line was kept strong by members and supporters from other unions, including UA Local 290, AFSCME Local 189, Teamsters Local 162, Painters Local 10, IBEW Local 48, and from Portland Democratic Socialists of America and Portland Jobs with Justice.

“We take an oath as a union electrical worker to not cross picket lines,” said Tonya McNeese, an electrical apprentice with Local 48 and member of the local’s RENEW (young members) chapter. Outside the wastewater treatment plant, McNeese and fellow IBEW members held signs and walked the picket line.

 “We wanted to come out and show support for the Laborers in there, and make sure they get fair contract negotiations.”

Railroad workers apparently felt the same way. During the first night of the strike, at least two trains paused on the railroad tracks adjacent to the plant, blocking any vehicles that hoped to cross in or out.

From the beginning of the strike until mediation on Saturday, there was little communication between the City and Local 483. At one point, the City asked the union to endorse a joint statement decrying alleged “rioting” at the picket line. Union leaders declined, but did respond to Mayor Wheeler’s vague allegations of violence, saying that the union had not received any substantiated reports of illegal activity at the picket.

“We are very concerned about the City acting against our legal pickets,” the union wrote in a public statement on Saturday. “Thus far we have seen erroneous legal injunctions of our strike, misleading mayoral declarations, and verified reports of people in the City’s employ attacking our members with their vehicles.”

The Labor Press asked the City if it could provide any specifics supporting Wheeler’s claims of violence and rioting. Belding, the City spokesperson, said supervisors crossing the picket line reported that people were throwing rocks, hitting vehicles with sticks, and punching vehicles, but Belding declined to back that up with any details whatsoever—dates, times, locations or description of incidents. She suggested a public records request for that information, which was submitted but not fulfilled by press time. Portland Police spokesperson Nathan Sheppard referred questions about the alleged illegal conduct at the picket back to Belding.

With workers on strike, City finds money for raises

The tentative agreement doesn’t remove the 5% COLA cap, but it does front-load the wage increases, providing a minimum 8% increase retroactive to July. That’s more than the 6% the City was offering before the strike. Details vary, but for a hypothetical full-time City worker making $26 an hour, the difference between 6% and 8% is over $1,000 a year. In other words, a three-day strike will net more than $4,000 over the four-year contract.  

Some workers will get even larger retroactive raises—up to 21.5%—because the City agreed that those workers are paid below the market for their occupations. For example, a welder currently making $35.12 will get a 14.5% raise to hit $40.02 per hour. A wastewater operator making $37.48 will get a 14.2% raise to hit $42.79. Park rangers making $29.84 will hit $34.94, a 17.1% raise. An arborist making $28.76 will hit $32.04, an 11.4% raise.

O’Laughlen, the Local 483 field rep, says the uncapped COLA component became less essential than the wage increases as inflation eased. The most recent figures show inflation at 6.5%, down from 9.1% at one point in 2022.

The agreement also provides a 5% COLA in July 2023, and 1-5% COLAs in both 2024 and 2025, tied to inflation. 

The agreement also says workers will get 24 hours of straight-time pay for each week they’re on-call, up from 18 hours as offered in the City’s final offer.

“We’re proud of this contract,” O’Laughlen said. “We feel our members are going to vote it in…. But we also view it as the foundation to building more, especially looking around and seeing how engaged our people are, how much the community has supported them. This could be the staging ground of a really strong union.”

Contract vote results will be available after Feb. 24.


State board slaps down City’s last-ditch attempt to declare strike illegal 

Late in the afternoon Feb. 1, final negotiations before the planned strike ended without a deal. But City management had another card up its sleeve: Hours ahead of the strike, the City attempted a legal maneuver to block the action—filing a petition with Oregon’s Employment Relations Board (ERB) to declare the work stoppage illegal.

The petition alleged that Local 483 technically gave only nine days’ notice to strike, rather than the 10 required by law, and it said the union hadn’t provided reasons for going on strike.

ERB dismissed the petition. The board disagreed with the City that “10 days” means “10 full days,” and it ruled that the Jan. 23 strike notice came 10 days before the Feb. 2 strike. ERB also dismissed the City’s argument that it hadn’t received certified mail notice of the strike until Jan. 24. ERB responded that the union had a reasonable expectation the notice would arrive Jan. 23, and, in any case, the city received written notice in other forms by Jan. 23.

Supporting the City’s claim that Local 483 didn’t explain the reasons for its strike, City attorneys said Local 483 didn’t detail how the dispute could be resolved. But the state ruled that the union didn’t have to, and that its reasons for striking were clear: “The reasons and unresolved bargaining issues concern compensation and safety.”

ERB even questioned whether the City’s objections were made in good faith, given that the City waited nine days after receiving strike notice to file the complaint, just eight hours before the strike began.

“We would expect that a public employer that was legitimately confused about the stated reasons for an intent to strike or legitimately concerned about the lack of sufficient notice would, at a minimum, attempt to promptly address that confusion or concern with either the labor organization or this board,” ERB wrote.

The strike was deemed legal.

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