If you hit your snooze bar and slept late on Monday morning, you probably missed the massive--yet brief--work-strike in Portland. Upset that City Hall was nickel and diming their health benefits, about 1800 city employees walked off the job for a whopping 20 minutes.
Since strikers included most non-emergency city employees, such as meter maids and those who issue building permits, the strike did (momentarily) slow the city down. But less than an hour later, as the union agreed to a tentative contract, the gears of Portland churned once again.
At the center of the debate were health benefits. For the past 20 approximate years, city employees have enjoyed generous perks, including full waivers on deductibles and laser eye surgery. But this year, citing budget constraints, the city refused to pony up for premium benefits. Union negotiators estimated that such changes would cost each employee about $1500 annually in extra, out-of-pocket payments and lost benefits.
Although mediators worked out an amendable healthcare plan in order to avoid a significant strike, the days leading up to the settlement provided insight to the mindset of City Hall.
"We've talked about the trolley, PGE Park, and the Eastside esplanade; they made those priorities," said Don Loving, a union representative for local AFSCME Council 75. "Once they get their mind set, they find the money somehow. We just want to make employees that same priority," explained Loving.
Loving was also surprised that the city chose to play hardball. Noting that the union took pains to close the gap between the city and employees' demands, Loving said the city was "absolutely not willing," to yield.
"When Vera said they are facing financial difficulties, we gave $5 million," said Loving, referring to the union's willingness to negotiate. "But they still said that we had to pitch in more," he added.
At press time, city employees had agreed to return to work, while mediators continued to work out disagreements over healthcare coverage.