With the 2016 Portland mayor's race already kicking into high gear, the union for city workers just extracted a major promise from incumbent Mayor Charlie Hales: He'll support $15-an-hour wages for the part-time employees who staff the city's parks.
At a union town hall last night, Hales told the crowd that he would try to recognize seasonal Portland Parks & Recreation employees—who make up the overwhelming majority of the city's part-time employees—as union members of Laborers' Local 483. That's a reversal of Hales' position earlier this year, and a step back from the city's bargaining position.
"I will push the city to recognize employees for what they do," Hales said at the Service Employees International Union Local 49 hall in Southeast Portland.
Hales' promise comes in the early weeks of an aggressive election challenge from Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler, and suggests that Hales will try to cement a position to Wheeler's left.
But the $15-an-hour pledge last night drew blowback from City Commissioner Steve Novick—who's also running for reelection next May.
Novick, who was also on the town hall panel, said that what Hales promised just wasn't possible without making cuts elsewhere in the city's budget—including his favorite targets, the Portland Police Bureau's drug and vice unit and mounted patrol.
"There's not enough to pay everyone what they deserve," Novick said. "It's not that easy."
Hales backed away from his initial pledge during a follow-up question about seasonal workers. "What I'm hoping is that the economy grows fast enough," he said, in order to take some of the surplus from the city budget and put it toward paying seasonal workers $15 an hour.
The public employees union is looking to pull a commitment to recognize seasonal workers as union members—a fight they took up as the city raised its minimum wage for full-time employees to $15 an hour in February.
It follows a protracted and successful fight last year to unionize the city's park rangers.
Laborers' Local 483 won an arbitration grievance against the city this summer that ultimately led to recognition that 250 seasonal—or casual—employees were doing the same work as full-time employees without receiving the same benefits. Roughly 86 of those 250 people have been brought into the union as a result of the arbitration, says Tom Colett, the government liaison for Laborers' 483.
The Portland Mercury covered the seasonal workers' policy in detail last February.
After the town hall, Hales clarified to WW that the city could raise money to pay seasonal workers more by increasing the business licensing fee and passing a gas tax—another idea he's warmed to in recent weeks.
During the panel, Hales also said that he supported raising the minimum wage for all businesses in the city to $15 per hour—if the state lifts the ban on Oregon cities setting their own minimum wage rates.
"It probably needs to be higher than $15," Hales added, "but it's a start."