Portland doesn't have a reputation as a union town. But in the wee hours of Monday morning it started to feel like one, when some members of the District Council of Trade Unions briefly walked off their night-shift jobs for the City of Portland.

Inside City Hall, negotiators for the union and the city were still talking. At 4 am, Mayor Vera Katz made a gut decision. In a few hours, hundreds of union clerical workers, asphalt rakers, car mechanics and Water Bureau technicians would not show up for work. A full-blown strike by 1,800 employees was unacceptable. Katz walked into the room where bleary-eyed union and city representatives sat. Katz told DCTU leadership that the City of Portland's financial crisis was deepening with each day, and she was in no mood to blink. Within two hours, the union caved on major issues; night-shift employees returned to work.

In her eight and one- half years as mayor, Katz had never inserted herself into any contract negotiations. But then, she'd never felt she had to until last week. That's because this year, sitting across from city bargainers in negotiations, was Yvonne Martinez, a woman who threatened the first general walkout in the city's 150-year history.

As novel as a strike would have been, the path to this labor action was predictable. Eight different unions represent city employees. Most of them are as militant as Mother Teresa. Particularly pliant among city unions has been the DCTU, a federation of eight other city labor organizations. Over the last decade, DCTU and the city have commonly settled contract disputes without much rancor.

Those days are over.

What pushed union workers to the striking point this time was an inability to come to terms with the city over funding exploding health-care costs. What briefly put them on the streets was a hardball style of trade unionism delivered by the DCTU's chief negotiator, a 48-year-old, third-generation Utahan who sets nerves on edge just by walking in a room.

Management clearly doesn't relish bargaining with Martinez.

"This is negotiating in the Dark Ages," Katz said last Friday, when contract talks bogged down. She said the labor dispute would already be solved if the union used "collaborative, modern-age bargaining."

Why is the union in the Dark Ages? "You need to ask Miss Martinez," said the mayor.

Back in the summer of 2000, the first sign emerged that the city of Portland's largest bargaining unit was rousing itself and awakening as a different kind of labor organization.

In August of that year, Martinez took over as business agent for AFSCME Local 189 and its 1,000 city employees; by dint of that position, she became the DCTU's chief negotiator for its then-impending contract talks with the city.

Martinez, who declined to be interviewed for this article, was born in Salt Lake City but grew up in rough-and-tumble East Los Angeles, Calif. She was active in Latino campus politics at the University of Washington, where she earned a political science degree. She also received a master's degree in labor studies from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

In 1988, she went to work as a labor organizer with the Oregon Public Employees Union. Although Alice Dale, the executive director of OPEU, did not return a request for comment, there's little doubt that the union and Martinez had issues.

The conflict was made public in 1997, several years after she had left OPEU, when Martinez wrote an essay in the well-respected literary journal Zyzzyva.

In the remarkably candid essay, Martinez wrote about the sexual harassment she endured at the age of 17; the beatings her first husband suffered at an infamous antiwar protest in Los Angeles in 1970; her second marriage to a man who talked the talk of progressive trade unionism but regarded Martinez as a labor-movement "trophy bride"; and the dissolution of that marriage when he ran off with a younger woman.

She also wrote about her employment at OPEU and her departure, ostensibly for misusing expense vouchers; she claims she was let go because she rallied workers at OPEU to challenge management. "I see now that my boss simply had to discredit me," Martinez wrote. "She merely used a convenient racist stereotype--Mexicans as thieves."

The essay was adapted and reprinted in the Portland Alliance, a monthly newspaper that serves as the house organ for Portland lefties.

In a letter to the editor in a subsequent issue of the Alliance, OPEU officials charged that Martinez "submitted falsified expense claims, made personal use of union equipment and took unauthorized absences." The spat between Martinez and OPEU dominated the pages of the paper for months.

After she left OPEU, Martinez went to work for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which, in addition to representing city employees, also represents thousands of government workers in Oregon at the county, regional and state levels. She climbed through the ranks, and last year she landed the plum posting as business agent for AFSCME's city employees. Not only would she inveigh on behalf of line workers, she'd be in a position to stare the city down over the DCTU contract, as well.

On Jan. 31, 2001, Martinez gave the city notice that trade unionism was back with a vengeance. Where Tom O'Dea, her predecessor, commonly approached labor-relations problems with the city in a collaborative fashion, Martinez used bluster and confrontation. That sunny winter day, DCTU held an 800-member-strong rally in front of City Hall. It was the day before contract negotiations were to open with the city.

Union members hefted signs. "Health care is a human right." "Health care when we're ill, pensions when we're old. Is that too much to ask?" The Amalgamated Everlasting Union Chorus, a group of young Portland anarchists, belted out old Wobbly songs such as "Bread and Roses." Anne Feeney, well-known from the Seattle WTO protests, sang as well. DCTU members sported "Ready to Strike" buttons.

It was an unusual move. Typically, local government-employee unions don't hold rallies until talks bog down.

But it was a typical move for Martinez; the city would see another one soon after.

Two months later, Martinez testified before City Council on impending budget cuts. With a cutting edge to her voice, she told the council not even to contemplate laying off police desk clerks as a way to limit expenses. Mayor Katz told Martinez that her testimony wasn't germane; the clerks were paid for with a federal grant. Martinez railed on. Katz fumed.

While many in labor and management shake their heads at Martinez's style, few discount her ability to stir the passions of union members. In June, the union held a media-friendly "Tour of Porkland," a phrase coined by Martinez. The idea was to put a face on union claims the city wasted money it could devote to employees. Chanting and handing out literature to passersby, several hundred union members marched from PGE Park to the streetcar line at Portland State University, then across the Hawthorne Bridge to the Eastbank Esplanade. On each project the city spent tens of millions of dollars.

The union's message was simple: If the city could muster millions for these projects, then why couldn't it round up a few million for its employees? Where was the respect for the people who do the city's grunt work? Why should union members have to start paying $600 a year for family health care when the city could give Marshall Glickman and his pals $32.5 million? Where was the justice?

They were compelling questions. The only trouble was that the answers reveal the slippery nature of Martinez's claims.

PGE Park, the Portland Streetcar and the Eastbank Esplanade have cost the city tens of millions of dollars; that much is true. But none of that money came from a secret kitty that could have been lavished on employees.

Instead, the funds came from an increase in the hotel-motel tax (paid by tourists), tax-increment financing (generated by property-tax-backed bonds) or improvement districts; these funds can't be spent on salaries or benefits.

But Porkland undeniably had a galvanizing effect on Martinez's union members. As the summer crept on, they sported red T-shirts on Wednesdays and black T-shirts on Fridays--the prototypical colors of labor solidarity. "Will Strike if Provoked" buttons featuring a coiled cobra appeared in the workplace as well. Attendance at Thursday evening union meetings increased. Strike committees were organized.

The die was cast.

At the heart of the labor dispute is this question: Should employees have to pay a portion of their health-care coverage? Last year, the city spent $32 million on employee health care.

Currently, city employees pay none of their health-care premiums. In addition, members of their family are covered at no cost. With health-care costs skyrocketing and the city's revenues cratering, the city decided this year to propose that DCTU workers pay a portion of their health-care costs--a common practice in the private sector.

And so last week, as contract mediation sessions took place, the city proposed, as it has for eight months, that starting in 2003, the third year of the proposed contract, DCTU members pay a monthly premium of between $20 (for single employees) and $50 (for a family of four or more). It also asked union members to commit to work with the city to cut 25 percent in health-care costs--by eliminating some of the currently covered procedures (such as laser eye surgery), for example, or by absorbing a yearly deductible of between $250 and $500, according to DCTU estimates.

Only two months before, in August, the union agreed to have its members pay a portion of their health-care premiums, similar to what the city proposed in October. In return, the city offered to soften a number of work rules. But this agreement was voted down by DCTU members by a 3-to-1 margin on Sept. 14. For union members, the proposal was tantamount to a pay cut.

The city, however, says it is resolute. "We can't yield on health premiums," says City Commissioner Dan Saltzman.

The DCTU was unwilling to yield even as the strike deadline loomed, and it had the support of other city unions. If one union's members have to begin paying a portion of health-care premiums, then, under city policy, all other unionized city employees will get the same deal when their contracts come up.

"I know that the city's position is that whatever DCTU agrees to is what the city will try to cram down our throat," says Tom Chamberlain, president of the Portland Firefighters Association.

"The issue for everyone is health care, and when unions fight, they are setting the standards for all working people," says Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

After eight months of push-me-pull-you negotiations, the DCTU certainly succeeded in getting under the skin of city officials.

Most tellingly, at an Oct. 12 press conference, Katz pledged to enter the negotiations. Her first foray into labor talks while mayor, it was a signal of just how important it was to keep DCTU members on the job.

At that press conference, Katz had planned to excoriate the union both for its bargaining stances and negotiating style. WW has learned that an hour before the conference, Katz's office distributed her talking points to city commissioners' offices as a courtesy. The tone was bellicose and strident, stating that DCTU leaders "had misinformed their membership and our other city employees" with the Porkland escapade and that the union "misrepresent[ed] the City's position on virtually every segment of the contract offers."

Factually, the mayor was correct. Politically, she was as guilty of excess as the DCTU.

Shortly before Katz took the mike, City Commissioner Erik Sten rushed into her suite of offices. "I didn't think attacking the union was constructive," he says. "We have to work together, or this thing is really going to melt down."

Sten encouraged Sam Adams, Katz's chief of staff, to restrain his boss.

Adams agreed that the proposed statement was too strong and ratcheted down the mayor's rhetoric.

The bad feelings were still flying fast and furious as contract talks creaked along last weekend.

The DCTU took umbrage with Katz's assertion that it was negotiating with a style befitting a Viking warlord.

"She's got her head stuck up her ass," said Jim McEchron, president of Laborers Union Local 483 and a member of DCTU's bargaining team.

Such posturing sounds straight out of the Rust Belt, but it's a measure of the level of contention between the two sides.

Going into Sunday evening, representatives for both sides made it clear that there was little hope for a settlement. And then, tempted by labor-friendly language on contracting city work to private employers (always a touchy issue for trade unionists), early Monday morning Martinez and her union colleagues decided to give in on health care.

The tentative agreement they'll take before their membership gives the city exactly what it wants on the health-care issue. Workers will begin to pay health care premiums in 2003. Also, beginning Nov. 1, DCTU leaders will sit down with city reps and the city's seven other unions to hammer out how to reduce overall health-care costs by 25 percent.

"They got the message that we weren't going away without those changes," Katz said Monday morning.

Martinez and McEchron have to be nervous about whether union members will approve the contract; it is not substantially different from the one members turned up their noses at in September. The only real change is the deepening recession in the Portland area; under those circumstances, this may be the best deal union members will get.

"I'm glad we haven't lost our shirt," says McEchron.

Ironically, after months of thumbing their noses at the city, the DCTU feels burned by city negotiators; it believes they used Sept. 11 and the rotten economy to back the union into a corner.

"This was chickenshit," says McEchron.

Health care isn't just an issue with Portland unions. In Marion County, government employees almost struck three weeks ago, and, currently, 700 steelworkers are locked out at Wah Chang in Albany after going on strike. In both cases, proposed changes in health care caused the labor strife.

The last strike among local government workers came in 1980 when Multnomah County's AFSCME employees walked off the job for six weeks.

In 1996, thousands of Oregon Health & Science University's AFSCME employees struck for three days.

What looked like a strike at Powell's City of Books in 2000 was actually an organizing campaign, as the store's workers sought to have their ILWU union recognized by management.

The most aggressive of the City of Portland's unions has historically been the Portland Police Association, although it's been 32 years since that group engaged in up- against- the- wall tactics with the city. In 1969, a one-day job action by cops resulted in longshoremen and teamsters walking off their jobs in sympathy, closing the Port of Portland for one day.

Look out: Contracts for both the Portland Police Association and the Portland Firefighters Association are up for renewal next year.