Portland City Council is considering a legal fight to avoid releasing names of workers in one of the city’s public employee unions, Laborers’ Local 483, to an anti-union group, the Freedom Foundation.
Multnomah County District Attorney Rod Underhill has ordered the city to promptly release the names in response to a public records request submitted by the group.
The council is set to vote Wednesday to authorize the city attorney to challenge Underhill’s order in circuit court.
“The DA offered his decision, yes,” said Michael Cox, spokesman for Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler. “The city attorneys would like a court to rule on the law.”
The Freedom Foundation is a conservative research and advocacy group based in Olympia, Washington. It has campaigned against mandatory union dues, minimum wage increases and paid sick leave.
The group is seeking the names in partnership with a worker at the Bureau of Environmental Services’ wastewater plant who is unhappy with Local 483 and the new contract they signed in August.
The worker and the foundation want to organize a vote to de-authorize Laborers’ Local 483, which represents about 1,000 workers citywide, including parks, street maintenance, water and sewer workers.
“We said we would be willing to help him with this, and one of the steps we needed to take was to request the names of the bargaining unit,” said Aaron Withe, Oregon assistant director for the Freedom Foundation.
The record request is one of approximately 10 pending record requests the group is pursing related to union membership in Oregon, including requests that were recently granted in Jackson County and Josephine counties.
In Oregon, union members have a 90-day window after a new contract takes effect to petition for a de-authorization vote. It takes 30 percent of the membership to call a vote. If a majority of the members vote to de-authorize, the union can no longer require workers who opt out of union membership to pay dues.
The Willamette Week first reported on the sewer worker’s effort to de-authorize his union last month — and the union’s anger at his alliance with the Freedom Foundation.
“We have folks, whether they are new or whether they have been a member for decades, who have bargained up their wages, benefits, working conditions to what they are over a long period of time,” said Farrell Richartz, the business manager for Laborers’ Local 483.
“When you have an anti-union organization looking to defund unions in order to tear that down, that’s not public interest to me, that’s just b———-,” Richartz said.
The Freedom Foundation shared numerous documents related to the public records request with OPB.
Included in the documents, Ben Straka, a Freedom Foundation staffer, submitted a public record request seeking names of Local 483’s members Aug. 14. A staffer with the city of Portland’s human resources department initially said she would fulfill the request, and Straka agreed to pay $156.14 to get a current list of the names.
Then, an attorney working with Laborers’ Local 483 contacted the city’s attorneys and HR department and urged them not to release the information.
He argued that the city should consider the Freedom Foundation as a competing labor organization, because it was representing the interests of some city workers.
“Any assistance to that organization (named erroneously the Freedom Foundation) would be unlawful assistance to a labor organization,” wrote David Rosenfeld, the union’s attorney.
The city then reversed its position and denied Straka’s public record request, claiming the names were exempt from disclosure because a person’s union membership constituted private information, and because the city could face an unfair labor practice complaint.
Straka appealed the denial to District Attorney Rod Underhill.
In letter defending the city’s position, Senior Deputy City Attorney Heidi Brown said that members of the union feared harassment by the Freedom Foundation if their names were released.
Brown cited the case of one union member who lived a “non-traditional lifestyle” with a partner and wrote “I do not wish to be harassed because of who we were born to be” and of another union member who did not want her name disclosed because she is a domestic violence survivor.
But Underhill disagreed that union membership is personal information, covered by a blanket exemption from disclosure.
The city and the Freedom Foundation have already agreed that the record request will not include the names of 15 workers who voiced more specific privacy concerns.
Underhill noted that in a similar case, he ordered the city to give the names of non-union members to labor organizers. “We cannot in good faith reach a different result simply because it is a union that now objects to the information being released,” Underhill wrote.
Underhill also disagreed with the argument that releasing the names constituted an unfair labor practice, and said that the city’s labor agreements do not take precedence over state public records law.
A draft resolution that will come before the city council for a vote Wednesday authorizes city attorneys to challenge Underhill’s order.
“The commitment to open government must be balanced with the right of employees to make private decisions about whether to be a union member or fair share, along with the right of the existing labor organization to represent its members without interference from the city,” the resolution states.
Any further delay in releasing the records may in effect undermine the Freedom Foundation’s effort to roll back mandatory union dues for workers in positions represented by Laborers’ Local 483.
Portland City Council ratified the union’s new contract on Aug. 30. The union members who want to de-authorize have until the end of November to collect signatures in order to call a vote on the issue.
“The laborers’ union here has definitely been working with the city to block this request, and not only block it but challenge it and drag it out so that deadline does go by,” said Withe, of the Freedom Foundation.
Withe says his organization will find other ways to identify and contact union workers if they do not get the list of names in time to collect ballots for the de-authorization vote.