More than 600 Portland city workers have walked off the job.
Workers represented by the union Laborers Local 483 officially went on strike early Thursday after nearly a year of negotiations. The workers have been without a contract since June 2022, and negotiations over a new four-year deal broke down in December over 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. Portland leaders say they don’t have the money for the wage increases union negotiators are seeking.
Portlanders will feel an impact from the strike, though it’s not clear yet just how deep or how quickly. Mayor Ted Wheeler has authorized using independent contractors to do some of the work of striking city employees.
Local 483 includes people responsible for fixing sewage leaks, cleaning trash at city parks, and clearing streets of ice and snow, among other tasks.
“Whenever stuff goes down we’re always there, but we’re always forgotten when it comes time to renew a contract,” said Eric Payne, who has worked as a maintenance technician for Portland Parks and Recreation for 19 years, His work ranges from fixing park irrigation systems to planting trees to cleaning up biohazard waste dumped on park property. As Portland’s homeless population has grown, Payne said his job often involves connecting people who sleep in city parks with social services.
Payne picketed alongside more than a hundred of his coworkers Thursday morning outside of a parks facility on Southeast Division Street. Union members huddled around heat lamps and waved signs at passing drivers, many of whom honked in support.
Payne said that he’s witnessed how wages directly impact the city’s ability to hire skilled workers.
“When I first applied to this job, I was competing against hundreds of people — it was really competitive, " said Payne. “But now whenever we post a new job, the number of applicants gets lower and lower. And younger workers, they’re leaving more and more frequently.”
Payne said some of his coworkers have to work second jobs to make ends meet. He said the job turnover rate means the bureaus are both losing institutional knowledge from longtime staff and younger laborers who can be trained for higher-skilled positions.
Portland Parks and Recreation carpenter Scott Morris said he was picketing Thursday to remind the city not to forget about its essential workers. Morris said that being required to work in person during the COVID-19 pandemic helped draw his coworkers closer together — and realize their worth.
“We didn’t really know how undervalued we were until that point,” said Morris. “It was eye-opening.”
Morris said that wages for Local 483 workers haven’t kept up with Portland’s rising cost of living in recent years. And, unlike his managers and other city administrators, Morris said he is unable to move to a cheaper community to telecommute.
“I live in this community and I pay the cost to live in this community,” said Morris. “We need more money. It’s not greed, it’s survival.”
Portland city workers haven’t gone out on strike since 2001 when workers represented by the District Council of Trade Unions reached an impasse with the city over wages and health care premiums. That strike lasted about eight hours, according to Paul LaCroix, a retired Parks horticulturist who was on the union bargaining committee at the time. LaCroix, who joined workers on the picket line Thursday, said he’s surprised it’s taken this long for Local 483 workers to strike.
“When the pandemic hit, the city of Portland treated my former coworkers like they were expendable,” said LaCroix. “If I was still a steward, we would have walked out in 2020.”
Not all striking laborers were met with support this morning. According to Local 483 union representative James O’Laughlen, several workers picketing outside of a North Portland wastewater treatment plant were threatened by drivers early Thursday.
“I saw multiple people being bumped by vehicles going into the treatment plant,” O’Laughlen said. “It felt very intentional.”
O’Laughlen also spoke with a police officer who was called to the scene after someone reported the picketers being aggressive.
“I didn’t see anything like that take place,” O’Laughlen said. “All I can say is that some people have different thresholds for tolerating unusual activity.”
As of 11:30 am Thursday, the city says that none of the “essential services” provided by striking workers have been critically impacted. The city has moved supervisors and managers to fill in some of those essential roles, along with help from contracted workers. A city webpage created to respond to questions about the strike notes that response times to emergency street and park issues may be delayed.
City leaders generally do not comment on ongoing labor negotiations. Union members and city negotiators are scheduled to meet again on Saturday.
Payne said that it’s entirely up to the city to end the strike.
“We would be more than happy to go back to work if the mayor and commissions who talk about equity and social justice in the city of Portland didn’t just use those words but actually showed it by caring about some of the lowest wage workers Portland has,” Payne said. “They could resolve this today.”