A coalition of municipal trade unions has accused Portland officials of interfering with an effort to organize a possible strike over what they say are low wages.
In an unfair labor practice complaint filed late Friday, the District Council of Trade Unions alleges city supervisors polled union members on whether they would support a strike, told new members they could not participate and warned employees they would be denying vacation requests due to the looming walkout.
Union leaders are now accusing the city of violating Oregon law, which states public employers are not allowed to “interfere with, restrain or coerce employees” who are exercising their rights to unionize.
“When viewed cumulatively, the City’s conduct also reflects a clear effort to undermine the Union’s position in bargaining by dissuading employees from supporting a potential strike and trying to convince employees that they were not represented or lacked the legal right to go on strike,” the complaint states. “The City’s conduct has created confusion, fear, and anger amongst employees in the bargaining unit.”
The complaint comes as the city faces the prospect of a massive strike of municipal trade workers. Leaders with the District Council of Trade Unions have said they’re prepared to give notice of a strike as soon as Thursday. The strike could occur 10 days after the coalition notifies the city. The coalition represents roughly 1,100 city employees - roughly 16% of the city’s total workforce.
Rob Martineau, the president of the District Council of Trade Unions, said multiple bureaus, supervisors and human resources staff are implicated in the conduct described in the complaint.
“The city’s behavior is inappropriate and it doesn’t do anything to encourage labor peace or good labor relations with our workforce when they make these kinds of mistakes,” Martineau said. “Whether it’s unintentional, whether it’s a lack of training or ignorance, it doesn’t change the fact that these unfair labor practices occurred.”
The complaint was filed by an attorney for AFSCME Local 189, but Martineau said the complaint covers all groups represented by the District Council of Trade Unions. The coalition acts as an umbrella organization for six unions; AFSCME Local 189, IBEW Local 48, Plumbers Local 290, Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, Machinists District Lodge No. 24, and Operating Engineers Local 701.
In total, coalition members work for 17 city bureaus and offices, providing critical services such as building inspections and water treatment.
The complaint alleges that city supervisors took several steps to dissuade employees from striking, including asking union members if they planned to walk out and announcing they would deny vacation requests due to the strike. Some supervisors allegedly told employees - including those not represented by the coalition - that they would not be allowed to request vacation days for an unspecified period of time due to the looming strike.
City officials also allegedly told three groups of city employees that had recently become represented by the coalition that they could not walk out if a strike were called.
According to the complaint, business systems analysts, risk specialists, and internal affairs investigators became represented by AFSCME between December 2020 and May 2021, and DCTU leaders have been negotiating over their wages, hours, and working conditions for several months. But union leaders say they were told by the city’s labor relations director that these employees could not take part in a strike as negotiations for these groups were part of a separate process.
In the city’s final offer submitted to the Employment Relations Board in December, city officials wrote that they planned to keep the current wages and terms of employment for these three positions until they are negotiated separately.
City spokesperson Heather Hafer said the city is still in the process of reviewing the complaint and unable to comment in detail on pending litigation.
“The City supports and values its union members and respects employees’ rights to participate in all protected collective bargaining activities,” she wrote.
The coalition has been negotiating a contract with the city for nearly two years. Talks have reached a deadlock with wages remaining a major sticking point.
The city’s most recent offer includes a 1.6% cost-of-living adjustment (or COLA) retroactive to July 1, 2021 and an additional 5% cost-of-living adjustment on July 1 of this year. All DCTU members would also receive a $3,000 bonus.
Martineau said the coalition is not satisfied with the offer as the payment amounts to a minor pay raise that would expire after one year.
Hafer said the city’s entire offer package - including bonuses and wage adjustments - is worth $33 million. The Bureau of Human Resources estimates that the median salary of an employee represented by DCTU is $35.14 per hour or $73,091 annually.
Among other requests, union leaders are asking the Employment Relation Board to stop the behavior described in the complaint, pay a penalty of $1,000, and send out an apology to employees “affirming the rights of the employees to participate in Union activities free of coercion or interference.”
City and union negotiators have another mediation session scheduled for Wednesday at 9 a.m.