“I would never compare myself to a brave American soldier fighting a war,” wrote a middle-school teacher in an email widely circulated among supporters of the Portland Association of Teachers. “But in a way, we are fighting a war. Did we learn nothing from Vietnam?”
History is about to repeat itself. The teachers’ union and Portland Public Schools may have reached an 11th-hour deal Feb. 18 to avert a strike, but that’s not the only contract battle in the city. Negotiations between the District Council of Trade Unions and the city of Portland that seemed settled last month are in limbo after workers repudiated a contract agreement.
The dual standoffs represent the collision of organized labor’s frustrations after years of recession-flavored budgets with management teams emboldened by peevish business leaders.
“There is not a lot of joy amongst the city of Portland workers right now,” says Joe Baessler, political coordinator for American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75, one of seven unions represented by the DCTU. “It’s very, very hard for them to feel like they should keep taking it.”
How did workers and management in this labor-friendly city wind up at impasses on two fronts? Here’s a primer.
How We Got Here
Portland Association of Teachers: The Portland Association of Teachers voted Feb. 5 to authorize a strike after nine months of desultory negotiations. The union has followed a template set by the 2012 Chicago teachers strike—they’ve even borrowed a slogan: “The Schools Portland’s Students Deserve.” Their hard line reflects the approach executive director Richard Sanders of the Oregon Education Association ushered into the state in 2011. It’s no coincidence that Medford teachers are now on strike.
District Council of Trade Unions: The 1,600 workers who make up the DCTU are actually members of seven unions. Unlike politically powerful firefighters and police officers, DCTU workers hold less visible positions, in city parks and office cubicles, and on maintenance crews. They voted Feb. 10 to reject a new contract with the city—a revolt incited by members of Laborers’ Local 483.
What’s the hang-up?
PAT: The two sides have sparred over pay and benefits, but the real sticking point was class size. “I get why teachers are up in arms,” says Sue Levin, executive director of Stand for Children. “We’ve got abominable class sizes and a shrinking school year.” The district insists on adding days to Portland’s school calendar—now among the nation’s shortest—but balked at PAT’s demands to hire 175 more teachers.
DCTU: “Our folks don’t feel like the employers empathize with them at all,” says AFSCME’s Baessler. City workers are unhappy with their cost-of-living pay increases and time off—but their big gripe is workers’ perception that the city is pushing for more room to contract out jobs to non-union companies.
Why this doesn’t make sense?
PAT: On one hand, the impasse is puzzling because the school district, for the first time in years, is flush with cash: Three-quarters of PPS’s budget comes from Salem, and that allocation rose about 18 percent last year. Yet spending all the increase on raises and new teachers would be risky because the district has no control over future funding. That’s likely to leave teachers and parents unsatisfied.
DCTU: Because the union’s designated negotiators already signed off on the city contract. So when members voted to reject the deal, they were also rebelling against their own leadership. “The bargaining team thought this was the best they could do at the table,” says Erica Askin, internal organizer for Local 483. “The members are not going to back down. City workers are tired of being bullied.”
Why should I care?
PAT: Everything from graduation rates to property values is on the line. Already, patience with the district and the union has grown thin. “I think the wrong people are walking out,” Greg Goodman, a downtown developer, said on the eve of a strike. “I’d have the kids walk out, have an Occupy down at the waterfront, and make demands.” But it’s the OEA that is pushing a state ballot measure that will address school funding.
DCTU: The contract spat threatens solidarity between workers and city leaders on another front—the fight to defeat a May ballot initiative that would wrest control of the water and sewer bureaus from City Hall. Trade unions are slated to supply the city with money and muscle to defeat the coup led by angry businesses. If they don’t, measure backers have said they’re ready to eliminate dozens of union jobs to lower utility rates.
PAT: Former Mayors Vera Katz and Sam Adams visibly immersed themselves in school contract talks. But Mayor Charlie Hales held just one meeting with the district and the union before departing for South Africa, where he made phone calls to both sides. “Hallelujah,” he said upon hearing of the Feb. 18 deal. “They deserve some sleep.”
DCTU: After the mayor spent the past month carefully keeping his distance from the teachers’ battle, he now has a labor impasse on his own doorstep. “The irony is not lost on us,” says Hales spokesman Dana Haynes. “We just reset the clock.”