Union Files Labor Complaint Against City of Portland Over a Return-to-Office Requirement

On Wednesday, WW reported why the City Council is hesitant to bring workers back downtown.

On Aug. 29, American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Local 189 filed a complaint with the the Oregon Employment Relations Board against the city of Portland, alleging the city failed to bargain in good faith with the union over the return to in-person work.

At issue in the complaint is one office in particular: that of City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero.

AFSCME Local 75 and the city agreed last fall to create a new bargaining unit for certain positions in the City Auditor’s Office. That office, which conducts assessments of city bureaus and programs, is funded by the city but independent of influence from any bureau or city commissioner.

In early April, an administrator in the auditor’s office told employees in an email they would be required to come to the office three to four days a week starting in October. The union balked at this, telling the city that it had agreed to bargain with the union for 150 days before implementing a reentry plan. (The city disagreed, asserting it only agreed to bargain for 90 days over reentry—and that it had done so, to no avail.)

Despite a Local 189 representative warning the city not to alert employees to the reentry plan, the auditor’s office did so Aug. 29, according to emails documented in the complaint. Employees would be required to report to the office three or four days a week starting Oct. 10.

“The city breached its duty to bargain in good faith with the union,” the complaint alleges, adding that “the city’s email undermined the role of the union as the exclusive representative by implementing further change to the status quo while an unfair labor practice complaint on such a change is currently pending.”

(This referred to a complaint the union filed against the city April 18 that alleged it had failed to bargain in good faith over a one-day-a-week office requirement that kicked in earlier that month. Once again, at issue was union bargaining specific to the auditor’s office.)

The union argues that the city’s “unilateral” decision on back-to-work policy “exasperates the safety concern of employees” and “escalates the risk of exposure.”

The union’s complaint also serves as a warning shot to other city leaders about the blowback they’ll face if they follow Hull Caballero’s example.

On Wednesday morning, WW reported that hundreds of city employees are resisting calls to return to work in downtown Portland. City commissioners are treading lightly, in part because leaders of the city’s 12 affinity groups sent a letter to the City Council in June arguing that requiring a return to work would be sexist, ableist and racist.

That creates a dicey situation for commissioners—especially as they weigh such arguments against the frustrations of essential city workers who had no choice but to show up in person to work throughout the pandemic.

The complaint filed Monday shows just how strongly public employee unions—which have long held great sway in City Hall—are fighting a return to work on behalf of their members.

It appears, according to documentation in the complaint, that employees in the auditor’s office not represented by a union were required to come into the office three or four days per week since April.

The City Attorney’s Office declined to comment, citing ongoing litigation.