City Workers Fight Privatization; Demand Fair Contract

8263aStory and photos by Pete Shaw

Over 300 people converged in downtown Portland on August 14 to to demand that city managers negotiate in good faith with the District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU), the 7-union coalition that operates jointly in bargaining with the city. DCTU members–who hail from AFSCME Local 189, Laborers Local 483, IBEW Local 48, Machinists Lodge 24, Operating Engineers 701, Plumbers and Pipefitters 290, and Painters and Allied Trade Council 5–have been working without a contract since July 1. At issue is decades-old contract language protecting workers from arbitrary outsourcing to for-profit corporations and from unilateral changes in working conditions.

The over 1,600 DCTU members, including water treatment operators, street pavers, sewer workers, and mechanics, perform the labor that makes Portland function, but their work often goes unnoticed, at least until it is needed. AFSCME Local 189 member Rob Martineau, who maintains and repairs the city’s water mains, noted some of the most elemental tasks these workers do, that most Portlanders take for granted. “When a main breaks, I get in the mud. I make sure clean water gets to people’s houses. And the guys I work with make sure the dirty water goes away. And most importantly, we make sure the two never cross.”

Martineau also emphasized the quick response time and knowledge possessed by city workers. “Nobody knows the city’s infrastructure like we do,” he said. “We work with it every day. When a water main or sewer line breaks, we are there immediately.”

If you have ever had a plumbing emergency–a backed up, overflowing toilet that cannot be solved with a plunger, for example–you have likely noticed that getting prompt professional help is extremely difficult. City workers, however, respond immediately to city needs. They know Portland’s infrastructure because they work with it every day. The same criteria does not apply to private contractors, notes Martineau. “If a private contractor does city work, he may not be able to respond immediately. His equipment may be in Hillsboro or elsewhere,” Martineau said. “We can respond right away, 24/7. Outsourced labor can take days.”

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Outsourcing city jobs can also lead to corruption, as seen in the parking meter scandal when former Portland parking manager Ellis McCoy accepted bribes from private companies doing multi-million dollar business with the city. “Our union contract protects the taxpayers from this kind of cronyism,” said Richard Beetle, Business Manager for Laborers Local 483. “No one should be profiteering from our public services.”

Two key speakers during the rally were Gwen Sullivan, President of the Portland Association of Teachers, and Alan Ferschweiler, President of the Portland Firefighters Association. Neither the teachers nor the firefighters are involved in these contract negotiations, but Sullivan and Ferschweiler keenly understand the importance of solidarity. Telling the city workers they had “the right to be able to look at your kids and look at your family and know you have a contract that protects your job and your contract,” Ferschweiler later stated the bedrock principle of solidarity: “An attack on one is an attack on all. This is a fight on all our contracts.”

“This is not about money. It’s about taking away people’s job security,” Sullivan said. “It’s not us (the teachers and the firefighters) today. But it will be if we don’t stand together.”

After the rally, there was a march to City Hall with spirited chanting that echoed across Main Street, Fifth Avenue, Jefferson Street, and then 4th Avenue as the group circumnavigated Portland’s governmental headquarters. The display could not have gone unnoticed within the building. Outside, onlookers expressed support.

“We will not accept a concessionary contract,” said Wastewater Treatment Plant worker Wesley Buccholz, in front of City Hall. “The people on the other side of the table are not the city. The people on the other side of the table are mid-level managers and petty bureaucrats. They do not deliver clean water to our houses. They don’t fill potholes. They don’t keep the sewage out of the river. They don’t maintain gold medal parks. We do that. We will not take any more cuts. No more concessions. This is our city. We do the work.”

Throughout the US and the world, public services are being privatized in what is colloquially called austerity. People are being forced to give up job security, work for less money and, in many cases, are losing their jobs entirely. They see their houses and retirements disappearing. Their children cannot be taught the ideal that each successive generation should have a better life than the last. The people watching their dreams slipping away are our family, friends, and neighbors, and, as Sullivan noted, we may be next.

On one side of the doors to City Hall lies the Better Together Garden, lush with vegetation. Whether its name and symbolism mean anything to the city managers and administrators is doubtful. Across the street from City Hall, in Terry Schrunk Plaza, sit the tents of the houseless people recently evicted from the sidewalk upon which city workers came to march and chant. Some say that the managers and administrators working to tear apart the union contract in question are themselves a heavy financial drain on precious city resources–that what is needed are fewer bureaucrats and more laborers who actually do the work that keep the city on its feet.

Not only is it important for the city workers and their supporters to stand together, it is imperative that when they win, they continue struggling with other workers, helping to  strengthen the power of those who are organized, and aiding the organization of the unorganized. Concerned about this bigger picture, Greg Margolis of Jobs with Justice expounded upon the rally’s idea of solidarity. “Our challenge is to build a movement strong enough to develop real power in the fight for systemic change,” Margolis said. “We need models that create the kind of intentional connection between the labor movement, community organizations, environmental activists, communities of color, faith communities and other groups that can help build this movement. We will not succeed individually until we act collectively.”

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