By MALLORY GRUBEN
A first contract was nearly in reach for workers at the City of Portland Auditor’s Office after more than a year of difficult bargaining. Then a political squabble over process scrapped the deal, leaving AFSCME Local 189 to bargain it all over again.
Auditor Simone Rede says city charter gives her the authority to lead a bargaining team and sign off on union contracts for her employees. So she did. Within six weeks of taking office, Rede managed to do what city human resources officials had not in a year: reach a tentative agreement with Local 189 that a majority of union members approved.
But members of Portland City Council — who also must ratify the contract — say bargaining must be handled by the city’s Bureau of Human Resources.
Council members declined to comment, citing “active bargaining.” Representatives with HR did not return requests for comment. But Rede was happy to talk with the Labor Press. She said that in conversations with council members, not one supported ratifying her tentative agreement — despite them raising no red flags about its terms — because they think HR should have led bargaining. Rede did not have the authority to exclude HR, they told her.
Now, in an attempt to restart negotiations white preserving her office’s independence, Rede is yielding her place at the bargaining table to HR. On March 30, she signed an agreement that lets HR do the bargaining but requires Rede’s prior approval to any terms in future contracts.
“This agreement, while it is a different path than I started on … it is not meant to undermine my own authority in any way,” Rede said. “It’s a pretty smart way, I think, to get to a quick ratification.”
The Local 189 contract is one of the early tests of the auditor’s autonomy since a 2017 amendment of city charter. That year, voters overwhelmingly approved a measure to make the auditor’s office “administratively independent” and allow the auditor to make some legal, personnel, and budget decisions. The idea was to give more independence to the office to avoid any conflicts of interest between the oversight agency and the city departments it audits.
The amended charter clearly states the auditor’s authority to hire staff, decide wages, and make and carry out human resources policies. But when it comes to collective bargaining, there’s no explicit guidance. And workers in the office didn’t unionize until four years after the charter reform.
Legal precedent says anything necessary to carry out a charter-given duty is allowed by implication, said auditor’s office attorney Lisa Howley. Labor agreements cover wages and HR policies — two things the auditor has power to decide for her office — so it’s implied that the auditor can bargain over those terms, Howley said.
Contract negotiations started in October 2021 with the previous auditor, Mary Hull Caballero. The office’s bargaining team would have included Caballero, her general counsel and her business operations manager, but Caballero chose to delegate her position to city HR.
A contract, quicker
Rede said she made reaching a contract her top priority when she entered office on Jan. 1, 2023. She sees it as key to boosting morale and having a productive relationship with workers, who have not seen pay increases for more than a year.
“That, I think, is a pain point. And it’s out of step with the rest of the city’s employees,” she said.
At their first face-to-face meeting, Rede told the Local 189 bargaining team that she would serve as chief negotiator for her office. She also told city HR of the change and got no immediate pushback, she said.
She asked to attend any city council executive sessions that included conversations about negotiations in her office. At one of those meetings on Jan. 24, she told council members that she was taking a different approach than Caballero had.
“It was after that first executive session that I attended, where I stated my approach, that I received a meeting invite from the Bureau of Human Resources to talk about how I was proceeding,” Rede told the Labor Press. “And it was pretty clear that they were not happy with the way I was doing things.”
On Feb. 17, Rede and Local 189 reached a tentative agreement for a three-year contract that would provide a 5% cost of living raise for all workers, retroactive to July 1, 2022; establish a pay scale; and give a one-time $2,500 bonus on ratification and a one-time $1,500 bonus after the first year of the contract.
Rede said she may have been able to forge an agreement where her predecessor had not thanks to a difference of philosophy. For example, Rede supported a standard union step pay schedule based on experience, where Caballero and HR had pushed for merit-based raises — a classic anti-union stance because it leaves managers to decide how much an employee should be paid.
Some parts of the contract outline actions for city HR or council, such as a provision to transfer eligible employees to other jobs in the city before layoffs. The auditor couldn’t bind the city to those actions without council’s consent, because she doesn’t have power over other city bureaus. So Rede planned to seek council ratification at a March 22 meeting.
She abandoned the plan about three days before, because one-on-one preparatory meetings failed to sway any council members to support any agreement she bargained without HR. Rede said the new interagency agreement sets “clear and clean” guidelines about who is responsible for each part of bargaining, but declined to share a full copy of the agreement until HR had more time to review it. The agreement says HR will lead negotiations, but must tell Rede about proposals and receive her approval before any agreements are reached. That provision keeps her involvement, influence, and authority intact, she said.
Rede hopes the existing tentative agreement will act as a starting place.
The interagency agreement covers only the first contract. Rede could lead future negotiations, if she and council resolve their differences of opinion on authority. For now, the agreement sets aside that argument for the sake of a quicker contract ratification for Rede’s employees, she said.