Massive Strike Among City Workers Looms

As many as 1,200 workers could walk off their jobs, but city officials say they’ve got plans to maintain essential services.

Portland Parks & Recreation truck atop Rocky Butte. (Brian Burk)

More than 1,200 city workers who perform functions such as maintaining Portland’s drinking water system, keeping sewage flowing, and making sure street lights function may go on strike as soon as Jan. 20.

The District Council of Trade Unions, which includes a number of smaller unions that represent city employees from nearly all city bureaus, could authorize a strike as soon as Jan. 10. The DCTU and the city have failed to agree on a new contract since the last one expired over a year ago, and a union leader says the sides remain far apart, principally on wages.

A strike could mean that some of the city’s most essential workers—plumbers, building permitters and electricians—would walk out until a contract is agreed upon. (Police and firefighters are not part of the negotiations and would not go on strike.)

DCTU president Rob Martineau, who works as an operations mechanic with the Portland Water Bureau, says the strike would affect critical city functions.

“I understand the city will attempt to put together contingency plans, but some things just take people to do,” Martineau says. “There’s only so many managers to try and pick up the slack when 1,200 people stand outside their workplace with a sign.”

Support staff with the Portland Police Bureau who are tasked with forensic identification like fingerprinting in jails and administrative staff tasked with police record maintenance are union members.

Some Portland Housing Bureau employees who administer bond money for affordable housing are union members.

Staff in the revenue division who handle taxation under the Office of Management and Finance are union members.

Building permit and inspection staff with the Bureau of Development Services are union members.

City management officials, however, downplay the prospect of disruptions.

Jaymee Cuti, spokeswoman for the Portland Water Bureau, acknowledges 297 of the 575 bureau’s employees are union members, but says the bureau is prepared for a strike.

“We are committed to providing safe drinking water to Portlanders. We will continue to provide this core service,” Cuti says. “The Portland Water Bureau has conducted strike planning in prior negotiation cycles, and citywide planning efforts are underway to ensure continuity of all essential services.”

Unionized workers in the Water Bureau include 143 maintenance and construction workers, 90 in operations, 80 in customer service, 10 in engineering, and seven in finance. Jobs include “water meter techs, public works inspectors, surveyors, utility workers [and] operating engineers,” says Cuti.

Also at risk of walking out: 159 employees with the Portland Bureau of Transportation and 163 Bureau of Development Services employees.

“BDS anticipates there could be some delay in permitting and inspections services,” Hafer said, later adding, “I have no further information about PBOT at this time.”

Martineau says the city seems to be taking the threat of the strike more seriously now: “I feel like they’ve started to show urgency,” he says. “Up until the last two weeks, we didn’t feel that they were treating it with any urgency.”

The mayor’s office did not respond to WW’s request for comment.

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