More than 600 Portland city employees are prepared to strike Thursday after nearly a year of contract negotiations ground to a halt.
The strike could broadly impact city operations, as Laborers Local 483 includes workers in the Portland Bureau of Transportation, the Bureau of Environmental Services, and Portland Parks and Recreation. Those employees are responsible for addressing sewage leaks, removing debris from city streets, cleaning biohazard waste dumped at city parks, and clearing streets of ice and snow, among other tasks.
“The ambulances aren’t getting anybody to the hospital if it snows and we’re not at work,” said Joshua LaPierre, an equipment operator for the Portland Bureau of Transportation, at a Local 483 rally Saturday outside of Portland City Hall. “Poop rolls downhill to the river if we don’t go to work.”
The planned strike follows nearly 10 months of regular negotiation meetings between Local 483 members and city management. The workers have been without a contract since June 2022. The negotiations over a new four-year contract broke down in December over a disagreement on wages. Local 483 leaders want 3.5% annual raises for all workers for the first two years of the contract, along with annual cost-of-living related raises that reflect national inflation rates (currently 7.1%). The city, meanwhile, has offered 1% annual raises paired with a 5% cost-of-living raise annually for the first two years.
Local 483 workers say these raises they’re seeking would make city jobs competitive in the private sector, attracting new hires and eliminating retention issues.
Sopea Sem has worked for the city for 24 years and spent the past nine operating a sewage vacuum truck responsible for unclogging residential sewage backups. Sem said he’s watched many of his colleagues leave in recent years for better-paying jobs.
“The retention rate is so low, it’s not like they offer any bonuses or anything,” Sem said. “I’m probably going to leave unless we get this contract.”
Sem said that if he doesn’t show up to work Thursday, as planned, it could mean Portlanders’ emergency sewage problems would go unaddressed.
“When people have sewage flooding their basements, no one will be showing up to help,” Sem said.
The union also wants to see increased safety precautions in their new contract, like extra compensation for workers who handle biohazards, like syringes and sewage, that could carry bloodborne pathogens. Union representatives say this has become a new concern as “social factors,” such as rising homelessness have led to an increase in workers handling hazardous substances.
According to Local 483 members, city representatives have characterized their contract proposal as generous and reflective of the city’s current economic restraints in recent negotiation meetings. A city spokesperson declined to make city managers available for interviews about these meetings.
“The city continues to plead poverty,” said James O’Laughlen, a Local 483 representative. “But every six months, they seem to find tens of thousands in the budget that were not there.”
O’Laughlen is referring to the city’s budgeting monitoring process, in which city commissioners regularly reshuffle allocated funds to cover unforeseen gaps. He says Local 483 has yet to see proof that the city is truly able to afford the requested wage increase. O’Laughlen points to Portland leaders’ response to the planned strike as proof that they have money to spend.
Last Thursday, Mayor Ted Wheeler penned an emergency declaration directing bureau leadership to hire contractors to replace Local 483 workers if they go through with the strike.
To cover that cost, Wheeler ordered Shad Ahmed, the director of the Bureau of Emergency Management, to “pursue any and all available financial resources from any lawful source whatsoever that may be used to protect and promote the public health, safety and welfare from the threats to the public health and environment.”
“We’re being told that funds aren’t there to pay our wages,” said O’Laughlen. “But the funds are there for contractors? The city is very, very good at telling us how valued we are, how essential we are, how greatly they appreciate us. But then when it comes to recognizing our material concerns, they’re not there.”
It’s not clear how much it will cost the city to pay for temporary contract workers.
O’Laughlen argues that the jobs done by Local 483 workers aren’t simple, making it difficult for a temporary worker to quickly learn.
“We have very unique infrastructure here in the city,” he said. “It takes a long time to get comfortable operating around it, and performing the work we do.”
Three different Local 483 workers attending the Saturday rally said it took an average of six months to feel capable at their job.
On Wednesday, Portland City Council is expected to approve a separate policy granting the city attorney’s office permission to take legal action, if necessary, to protect the city’s interests in the event of a strike.
Both sides met Tuesday night for a mediation session. According to O’Laughlen, the city made no changes to their offer at that meeting. They’ll meet once more Wednesday before the planned strike. In an emailed statement, city spokesperson Carrie Belding wrote that Portland leaders still hopes to reach a tentative agreement with the union before Thursday.
The planned strike comes almost exactly a year after another city union threatened to strike over wage increases. Members of the District Council of Trade Unions, a union representing 1,200 city employees across city departments, had planned to strike on Feb. 10, 2022, after 20 months of negotiations with the city reached an impasse. The city eventually agreed to the union’s increased annual raises, and the union voted to call off the strike on Feb. 9.
Local 483 workers plan to strike beginning Thursday morning unless the city agrees to their contract requests.