A Nonprofit Aiding Refugees Epitomizes Portland Values. What Happens When Its Workers Want a Union?

The dynamic Multnomah County created encourages nonprofits to operate on the leanest budgets possible to win funding.

For six months, a labor organizing campaign has roiled one of Portland's largest and fastest-growing social service nonprofits, the Immigrant and Refugee Community Organization.

IRCO employees are demanding better wages, consistent hours and more input in designing programs.

Management responded by hiring a bare-knuckle law firm. Such friction is old hat in the private sector, where prominent local companies, such as Powell's, New Seasons Market and, most recently, Burgerville, have aggressively fought union campaigns.

But the latest union battleground is a nonprofit that has built a reputation for compassionately providing services to some of the state's most vulnerable new residents—some of whom are now IRCO emplyoees.

IRCO, founded 43 years ago, provides 200 different services to immigrants arriving in Portland from war zones, helping them learn English, find jobs, and seek legal help.

During the Trump administration, no Portland organization has so deeply engaged in the fraught work of resettling refugees as IRCO. Its efforts to welcome newcomers reflect the highest values of this city, even as the president targets and denigrates refugees.

Yet, as at many of Portland's social service nonprofits, IRCO's Achilles' heel is the morale of its own workers—many of whom complain of long hours, uncertain schedules and paltry benefits.

"IRCO has such a good reputation in the community," says Olivia Katbi Smith, who in her private life is a co-chair of the Portland chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America and, until last week, worked at IRCO. "To know they are union busting I think will come as a surprise to a lot of people."

On April 16, IRCO management sat down with union organizers from the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees to discuss whether the nonprofit would fight the union or remain neutral.

IRCO executive director Lee Po Cha says after meeting with AFSCME, he and his board decided against neutrality.

"We believe we would be failing in our role as community leader and employer if we did not reserve our right to provide our employees with additional information about what union representation could mean for them individually and what it could mean for IRCO, our clients and our mission," Lee said in a statement. "This is especially true given our unique workforce. Our employees have an incredibly diverse background, and for many of them, English is not their first language. They will expect that their leaders will provide information in a language that they can understand and in a culturally sensitive manner. We cannot abdicate that responsibility."

The organizing effort at IRCO, which has seen its budget grow from $14 million in 2014 to nearly $25 million last year, is just the latest campaign to unionize government-funded social service nonprofits.

Portland nonprofits are set up in a way that makes them susceptible to brutal union fights. Beginning in the 1970s, Multnomah County officials made the political decision to outsource many social services to nonprofits. They did so because outsourcing was far cheaper than providing the services directly through employees paid public-sector wages and benefits. Today, the county has 1,000 contract partners, many of them for services county employees once provided themselves.

That dynamic encourages nonprofits to operate on the leanest budgets possible to win funding.

"The county did it because they thought it would save money," says Joe Baessler, political director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75, "but they're saving money on the backs of the workers. Those nonprofits pay those workers way less money, way less benefits, and you see that in the amount of turnover. A lot of those workers were AFSCME members [in the government] and then got contracted out."

Other Portland nonprofits have seen disgruntled workers turn to unions.

Janus Youth Programs, which runs shelters for runaway and homeless teenagers, unionized under AFSCME in 2015. Employees at Central City Concern, Volunteers of America, Outside In, and Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, all private nonprofits heavily funded by government contracts, are also AFSCME members.

Perhaps the most bitter dispute over labor organizing unfolded in 2011 and 2012, when Oregon Planned Parenthood clinics moved to organize under Service Employees International Union Local 49.

Employees threatened to picket the organization's annual fundraiser. Then-Gov. John Kitzhaber canceled his appearance at the event, saying he would not cross a picket line, and Planned Parenthood scrapped the $250-a-plate gala. The war ended with employees unionized and the president of the nonprofit ousted.

The organizing drive at IRCO puts Multnomah County, a key funder of the organization, in a difficult spot.

"We are neutral," says county spokeswoman Julie Sullivan-Springhetti. "But we oppose managers doing any pre-emptive strikes to stop organizing discussions."

The battle has become increasingly heated. IRCO's executive leadership recently hired Bullard Law Group, a Portland firm that specializes in advising companies, including Burgerville, on unions.

And then there is the case of Katbi Smith. She says managers told her they needed to make her position full time and laid her off because she had another job she would not quit. Katbi-Smith says she received strong evaluations from her supervisors and got along well with them—until she began helping with the union drive.

"To be kicked to the curb like that after all the time I spent there," Katbi Smith says, "it really hurts." IRCO denies firing her. "Olivia was offered a full-time position, which she declined," Lee says.

Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of Oregon AFSCME, says her union will continue to help IRCO workers organize.

"It is upsetting that IRCO management continues to implement tactics of intimidation and threats to stop workers, some of whom were clients of the organization, from exercising their rights to organize and have a voice in their workplace," Chamberlain says. "It is extremely disturbing to know that IRCO, an organization for refugees and immigrants that prides itself on promoting equity and inclusion in the workplace, would use their resources to hire an attorney as a barrier for these workers organizing."

Nigel Jaquiss contributed reporting to this story.

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