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How A Last Minute Deal Avoided Shut-Down of The City

As far as I can tell, from talking with bargaining team members and people who were close to events in AFSCME 189 and Laborers 483, this is what happened late on Sunday, October 21st and early morning Monday, October 22nd as the City came close to being shut down by a strike. But Mayor Katz and Union Bureaucrats may only have achieved a delay.
Tuesday, 30 October, 2001

The District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) is an umbrella group of members of nine Labor Unions who work for the City of Portland. They include over a thousand members of AFSCME Local 189, 600 from Laborers 483, and anywhere from 5 to 100 from the Machinists, Plumbers, Electricians, Operating Engineers, Auto Mechanics, and Painters. Together, as the DCTU, we negotiate one contract that covers us all.

As far as I can tell, from talking with bargaining team members and people who were close to events in AFSCME 189 and Laborers 483, this is what happened late on Sunday, October 21st and early morning Monday, October 22nd as the City approached a shut-down.

Negotiations with the aid of a mediator from the State of Oregon began at noon on Sunday, October 21. The DCTU team in one room, the City team, now joined for the first time by Mayor Katz, in another. The Mediator shuttled between the two rooms bringing proposals and counterproposals. A friend of mine who is president of a Union local and has participated in many such sessions told me that the mediators don't care what kind of agreement comes out of the talks. They just want to get an agreement. So they tend to put a lot of pressure on the Union to cave, more so than on the employers who are usually more firm in their positions.

Talks went on all afternoon and into the evening with little result. The City continued to insist that the DCTU accept a reduction in health care benefits and begin to pay a monthly premium, as well. The City also wanted to cut into language in the contract that grants employees seniority rights during layoffs and prohibits contracting out work to lower-waged workers in the private sector.

In September, Business Agent for AFSCME 189 and DCTU spokesperson, Yvonne Martinez, had seriously damaged the DCTU's trust and confidence in her when she signed a tentative agreement on behalf of the DCTU that had been rejected by a majority of the bargaining team. Contrary to the portrayal of Yvonne as an uncompromising hard-liner by Philip Dawdy in the Willamette Week, her actions were widely regarded as unethical and a sell-out among the Union membership who rejected this agreement by a vote of 75% to 25%. In order to shore up a shaky situation, AFSCME Council 75 (Oregon) Executive Director, Ken Allen was present to keep an eye on Yvonne.

As the chief staff person for Oregon AFSCME, Ken is Yvonne's boss, and It was he who hired her. Ken in turn was hired by the Executive Council of Oregon AFSCME, which is made up of the presidents of each Union local as well as delegates who are selected at the State Convention. Although he's negotiated many labor agreements, this was the first time that Ken had taken part in these talks.

The DCTU wouldn't budge in their insistence that there further reduction in health care coverage and removal of language that prevents the privatization of City services. As the midnight strike deadline neared it became clear that the city was intransigent in insisting on take-backs on these issues and that it would take a strike to move them. At 9:30 PM Yvonne decided that no progress was going to be made and wanted to break off negotiations.

At that moment Ken Allen intervened to continue negotiations, and took over as lead bargainer for the DCTU. From then on Yvonne sat silent with her arms crossed and refused to participate any further in the talks.

As midnight approached with still no sign of agreement DCTU members and their supporters gathered at various work sites around the city to form picket lines. Many bargaining team members were ready to walk. But Ken Allen and the Business Agent for the second-largest Union in the DCTU, Laborers' Jim McEchron wanted to continue.

At the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES), 30 DCTU members from Laborers and AFSCME gathered outside the gates in a pouring rain to support the five Laborers who work the graveyard shift there, who were going to walk out at midnight, and picket to shut the site down. Laborers Secretary-Treasurer Richard Beetle was there with a pickup truck full of picket signs that the Portland Firefighters Association had had made for the DCTU. Firefighters and police are forbidden to strike by law, so they are relying on the DCTU to protect the health care benefits that all City employees share.

At 12:01 the five workers walked through the gates of BES and were met by the cheers of their comrades. But Richard Beetle received a call on his mobile phone from Jim McEchron who told him not to distribute the picket signs, because talks were continuing. The five who had walked out refused to go back to work, so they all stood in the rain and waited.

There were similar scenes at other 24-hour-a-day work sites: the Bureau of Maintenance, Water Bureau, and the Justice Center where picketing was scheduled to begin at 12:01. I'm not sure why the bargaining team held up the strike. It's not as if they couldn't continue to negotiate with people walking the picket line. In fact they did so later.

DCTU members continued to wait for hours for picket signs outside these shops. Talks continued to go nowhere slowly, as the State Mediator shuttled in between the two rooms. I guess she got tired of it because during one break in negotiations the mediator pressed both sides to move to bargaining face to face with smaller teams. Both sides accepted, but I don't know who did the accepting.

AFSCME 189 President Larry Smith said that he was not consulted in this decision. When he came back from visiting the pickets outside City Hall during the break, Larry saw a City team meeting in a closed conference room on the second floor with the Business Agents from each of the nine DCTU Unions. You could see them from the lobby through the large glass windows: David Shaff, Mayor Katz and some City management; and Ken Allen, Yvonne Martinez, Jim McEchron and the rest of the Business Agents. Yvonne still sat with her arms crossed, not participating. Ken Allen was doing the talking for the DCTU. All of the Union members of the bargaining team were on the outside looking in.

Some of the DCTU Business Agents are appointed to their positions, like Yvonne; some are hired by a committee, like Ken Allen; some were elected by the members of their locals, like Jim McEchron, but none of them, not a single person in that conference room, was going to have to work under the contract they were negotiating.

The DCTU officers got fed up and called a strike at about 5 AM. The picket signs were finally distributed to the members who had waited all night outside the gates of BES and elsewhere. But not for long. Forty-five minutes later the Business Agents emerged from the conference room with a deal to avert a city-wide shut down.

It was a cave-in. The deal included premium payments by the employees for health insurance and a minimum 19% reduction of benefits with a target reduction of 25%. It contained a yearly cost-of-living wage increase that will be equal to the US Dept. of Labor's Consumer Price Index for the Western States region; No change in contracting out or seniority language. The DCTU will participate in consultations on cutting back our own health benefits along with the other City bargaining units: Firefighters, police, and COPPEA. If we don't like the changes that come out of this we won't be able to strike. That is our one source of leverage with the City. If the Firefighters and Police use their weapon of last resort, binding arbitration, to win a better benefits package from the City, we will not get their improved deal.

In short, this deal, in all important respects, is exactly like the one that we voted on last month. A deal that also was the result of a closed-door negotiating session between Business Agents and the City without any DCTU members present. A deal that was rejected by a vote of the DCTU membership by a 75% to 25% margin.

The members of AFSCME 189's bargaining team voted 3-2 in favor of this deal. Vice President Chuck Moffit of the Office of Management and Finance, Harriet Sheets of Police Bureau, and Mike Arkin of the Water Bureau voted in favor of it. President Larry Smith and Lisa Washington of OPDR voted against it. So AFSCME 189's one vote in the DCTU was in favor. Of the other 8 unions in the DCTU, four were in favor, and four were against. So, the tentative agreement was accepted by a 5-4 vote.

Tuesday night the regularly-scheduled General Membership Meeting of AFSCME 189 was held in the Machinists Hall. Only about 25 or 30 people were in attendance. I came for the duration, but I didn't stay long. Ken Allen was defending the deal when I walked in.

? "The economy is bad." We got a 1.1% wage increase when the economy was good, Ken.
? "All the AFSCME contracts lately have included reductions in health care." I shouldn't wonder with this kind of representation.
? "September 11th." God, you too Ken? A couple hundred AFSCME members died in the World Trade Center collapse. I didn't know any of them. But I do know that, if I were to die, I wouldn't want anyone to use my death as a reason for workers to accept a reduction in their health-care benefits. Maybe that's just me. Maybe not.
? "We commissioned a poll of Portlanders, and people said they wouldn't be in favor of a strike by City workers." What the hell? You took a poll to see if a strike would be popular? I've never heard of such a thing in my life.

I asked the Business Agent for the Port of Portland Longshore workers,' ILWU Local 8, "Have you all ever taken a poll before you've gone out on strike?" He replied, "Uh, . . .no . . ."

I didn't think so. Has there ever been a strike that was popular before it happened? I studied labor history in graduate school, and I've never heard of one. Although, I can name many that were popular after they had been won by the strikers.

Even if public opinion was a reasonable measure to take before a strike, polls have many other problems. The dirty little secrets of the pollsters are that people lie (They don't trust assurances of anonymity. They say what they think they're expected to say), and many, many people refuse to answer.

The people who refuse to answer do not, as a group, have the same range of opinions as those who do answer the poll-takers' questions. The opinions of those who answer them do not accurately reflect the opinions of the sample as a whole (they may not even accurately reflect their own views). So poll results are skewed.

Polls also don't measure people's commitment to their opinions. Many people may be against a DCTU strike who would not lift a finger either for us or against us. Our supporters may be in the minority, but they would be willing to get off their asses and come out to walk our picket lines, or call City councilors to demand they give us a fair deal. An active minority trumps a passive majority every time.

We had widespread, active support among in the community. On Sunday, October 21st I was invited to a meeting of the Cascadia Forest Alliance. These environmental activists have people who are in jail in the coast range, where they have been working to stop logging of old growth trees. Yet they invited me to speak at their meeting because they wanted to know how they could help us in our struggle for a fair contract.

I found out that the strike was called off when two people that I know, a Longshoreman and a Teamster, called me early Monday morning from outside City Hall. They were wondering where we all were. All these people and more, Unionists, environmentalists, religious people, were willing to put out an effort to help us win a decent contract. Union workers across the state were looking to us to stop the movement toward cutting benefits. And we let them all down.

Now, in the workplace, City management is acting like they own us. And why not? We've shown that we're willing to accept a 33% cut our health care benefits in one year without a fight. We haven't been defending our members rights in the workplace. So, we can expect them to try to take more and more liberties with labor laws and whatever contract we have. Caving-in will buy us no peace in the workplace, just the opposite.

The labor bureaucrats have thrown another obstacle in front of us, but we're not down. In the workplace the rank-and-file feel angry and humiliated. After all the big talk about how we would strike rather than see our health care package gutted, our bargaining team folded at the last minute. We'd already voted down an agreement identical to this one, they don't understand why the bargaining team is sending it to them again, and they are incensed that all Union members on the bargaining team were excluded, while the staff signed away our health care again. The DCTU bargaining team and Union bureaucrats may have lost their nerve, but it appears that the members have not.

Last night, Monday, October 29 the Executive Board of AFSCME Local 189 voted to recommend that the membership vote "No" on this new tentative agreement. The voting will take place next week, November 8 and 9. If the membership do reject this offer we will probably have to strike in order to get Mayor Katz and the City Council to abandon their plans to rip 25% out of our health care to pay for their mismanagement. If so, the members are ready to do just that.