Ryan Alexander-Tanner

IT PROBABLY wasn't his intent, but City Commissioner Dan Saltzman did a fine job on July 29 of injecting reality into the cozy theatrics of a Portland City Council meeting.

The council was on the verge of making its greatest stride yet in the push to pay all city workers at least $15 an hour. In a deal with the union Laborers' Local 483, the city tentatively agreed to fold 86 of the parks bureau's "support" employees into the comparably cushy union contract—with potentially hundreds more to follow. The changes mean raises and benefits for some of the city's worst-paid workers, at an initial cost of up to $2.35 million.

At first, the hearing had a sunny air—with commissioners invoking teamwork and partnership between the union and city labor negotiators. Then Saltzman brought in the storm clouds.

In an abrupt turn of events, the commissioner brought up an old dispute, accusing the union of "disrespect and unethical behavior," and demanding it pay the city $80,000.

It turns out the city forgot to charge labor unions in 2009 for the time city employees spent that year negotiating contracts on behalf of their fellow union members. According to Human Resources Director Anna Kanwit, officials didn't realize the mistake until years later, well after the window to send those bills had closed.

The city says all public employee unions have paid up except Local 483, which disputes the $80,000 price tag.

"I don't think you have any intention of paying it," an increasingly agitated Saltzman told the union's business manager, Erica Askin, at the meeting. "When we lose, we pay. But you are thumbing your nose at it."

It went downhill from there, and Saltzman—who's been one of the stronger voices on council for a $15 wage for city employees—eventually refused to support the agreement council was considering. That nixed the possibility the deal would pass as an "emergency" ordinance, taking effect right away.

At least a couple of Saltzman's colleagues were clearly irked by the exchange, but I'd argue it lent honesty to the proceedings.

After all, the push to win parks workers higher wages has been a long, contentious slog for Local 483. The union has fought for years to convince the parks bureau it's improperly assigning low-paid workers jobs that are supposed to be completed by union-represented employees. The city's resisted that every step of the way.

It wasn't until May 1, when an arbitrator issued a binding ruling agreeing with Local 483, that Portland officials finally began playing ball (though they continue to gripe that the ruling was badly written).

The hearing that played out on July 29 could have, like so many others, glossed over the sharp difficulties that have gotten us to this point. Instead, it reveled in them.

The union agreement now goes before council on Wednesday, August 5. Though it's been put off—again—by rancor and a difference of opinion, it's got the support to pass.

As Commissioner Steve Novick noted at last week's hearing: "Every once in a while it's nice to be forced to do the right thing."