For decades, unions representing Portland's firefighters and police officers have been good at negotiating with City Hall. That's reflected in their latest labor contracts, which, among other things, contain annual raises in the range of 3 to 4 percent.
The economic devastation of COVID-19 may change all that.
On May 13, the Portland City Council is scheduled to vote to ratify contracts with the unions that represent firefighters, police commanding officers, and the 911 operators at the Bureau of Emergency Communications. Negotiations were completed in March when the economy was booming and the budget forecast was sunny. (A larger city labor contract, with rank-and-file police officers, is still being negotiated.)
The COVID-19 pandemic has completely changed the picture, and the City Council is now facing a shortfall of $75 million in the 2020-21 budget. Mayor Ted Wheeler has whittled that number down to $9.5 million, with a package of savings and cuts. He cut the pay of the city’s 1,700 nonunion employees, laid off or didn’t hire nearly 1,000 parks workers and will tap the city’s savings and delay some spending.
But Wheeler says he still needs city unions to help him find $9.5 million in savings.
“It’s a very difficult situation,” says the council’s longest-serving member, Commissioner Amanda Fritz, who acknowledges that the mayor and unions are engaged in last-minute conversations about the contracts.
That leaves Wheeler, Fritz and their colleagues with three options, all of them unappealing. They could:
• Sign the contracts this week, approve the raises and then balance the city’s budget by squeezing additional savings from city employees not represented by those unions.
• Vote to approve the contracts, then immediately ask the unions to give back some of the money.
• Reject the contracts and go back to the bargaining table, something the city has not done in four decades.
On the eve of the vote, no city commissioner was willing to reveal which of these three paths they’ll choose.
That is unusual in a building where most votes are telegraphed well in advance. However, talks continued through WW’s deadline as commissioners pressed for concessions before the vote.
Such negotiations this close to a vote are remarkable, no matter the result—but they’re even more unusual because they must be conducted via phone calls and Zoom video chats, thanks to COVID-19.
The signals emerging from City Hall over the past two days suggest the council does not want to sacrifice its leverage by signing the contracts without first getting concessions. Without such concessions, the City Council just might reject the labor contracts entirely.
That would be a difficult choice—especially one week before an election with both Mayor Wheeler and Commissioner Eudaly facing serious campaign challenges, and at a time when members of the three unions, in different ways, are on the front lines of the response to COVID-19.
“I was in a nursing home at 2 am the other night in a full hazmat suit,” says Capt. Alan Ferschweiler, president of Portland Firefighters Association. “This is not normal for us.”
The city may not have a better option. If the council approves the contracts on Wednesday, it will then have to claw money back in separate negotiations. It cannot link approval of the contracts to unions’ acceptance of future pay cuts, so if it ratifies the contracts, the council loses all leverage.
That has union leaders bracing themselves for bad news.
"I don't know what to expect," says Lt. Craig Morgan, president of the Portland Police Commanding Officers Association. "I would not faint from surprise if they rejected our contract."
Although it faces tough choices, the city is in better shape than Metro, the regional government which depends on ticket sales and taxes from travelers, or the state of Oregon, which depends on income taxes and the Oregon Lottery. Metro has already laid off 40 percent of its staff. And Gov. Brown this week told state agencies to prepare for cuts of 17 percent
The city of Portland’s revenues come from property taxes, utility franchise taxes and corporate taxes, all of which are more stable during down economies than other governments’ funding sources.
To balance Portland’s budget next year, Wheeler has proposed cutting all bureaus’ general fund budgets 5.6 percent.
Police and fire are the largest bureaus, together consuming well more than 60 percent of the city’s half-billion-dollar general fund budget. And personnel is 74 percent of the police budget and 85 percent of the firefighters’.
Wheeler will spend down reserves and one-time funds and wring savings elsewhere, but he wants big public safety cuts as well: a total of $6.5 million from Fire & Rescue and nearly $12 million from the Police Bureau.
At his budget rollout May 8, Wheeler said he hoped to achieve those savings through negotiated compensation reductions rather than layoffs but “everything’s on the table.”
If the council approves the labor contracts, the unions could later refuse to make concessions, potentially forcing the city to squeeze savings out of nonrepresented employees or members of other unions.
Ferschweiler says he is in constant contact with Wheeler to find a way to avert the council from rejecting his members’ contract.
“Our members want to feel like they are being honored and treated respectfully, and I think the council wants to do that,” he says.
Like Ferschweiler, Morgan, the PPCOA president, says he’d like a bit more transparency from Wheeler.
“Being members of the community, we are not ignorant of what’s going on in society as whole,” Morgan says. “We have friends and neighbors who have been laid off, and we don’t think we are immune from that. We just really want the city to show us exactly where the shortfalls are.”
Complicating matters is the death of Commissioner Nick Fish on Jan. 2, which left the council with just four members. In the case of a 2-2 deadlock, according to the city charter, a contract vote fails.
None of the commissioners would comment directly on what will happen Wednesday. Fritz gave a hint, however: "As much as we appreciate what the public safety workers do and what other city staff do, we can't print money."