Matt Dishman Community Center portlandoregon.gov

IN OCTOBER, Mayor Charlie Hales stood before a crowd of labor supporters in Southeast Portland and made a bold promise. After years of tense relations with workers who wanted union protections, Hales said he'd push to create an easier path to unionization for some of the city's worst paid employees.

"It's the right thing to do, and I think city council's gonna support that," Hales said at the October 21 event.

The commitment was the latest in a string of good news for Portland's "casual" employees, a group of parks and recreation workers long denied benefits and hamstrung in how much they can work (and therefore how much they can make), despite sometimes working for the City of Portland for more than a decade.

In early May, the city lost a labor dispute with the union Laborers' Local 483, essentially requiring Portland Parks and Recreation to extend better pay and benefits to a fraction of those workers. Since July, a few dozen have been folded into the union contract, meaning better pay—in the vast majority of cases above $16 an hour—and benefits.

It's a modest improvement for a group of workers who've complained, at times, of relying on food stamps. And Hales' promise—still unfulfilled—would potentially open the door for hundreds more casual workers to come under union representation. Instead, it's ground things to a standstill.

Local 483 and city labor negotiators just blew a self-imposed December 1 deadline for reaching an accord, and what participants once described as an amicable process has devolved into public disagreement.

"It's clear [human resources] is trying to backtrack," says Erica Askin, business manager for Local 483, who's been negotiating with the city regularly since the summer. "We need city council leadership on this."

The issue resonates at a time when Portland's bemoaning wage stagnation, displacement, and a housing crisis. City council's banned from setting a minimum wage for the entire city (though that might change in next year's legislative session), but is free to pay its own employees what it wants.

For hundreds of parks workers, that's very little. The bureau is unique in that for decades it's relied on casual employees to provide services. They've manned the front desks at community centers, taught classes, taken money from customers, and helped manage pools, among other things. But most aren't allowed to work more than a set number of hours each year—1,200 for many—and are ineligible for benefits.

Earlier this year, the Mercury reported that more than 1,800 casual city workers still make less than $15. The vast majority of them work for parks.

"I'm embarrassed to be in charge of the bureau that has workers on food stamps and Obamacare," Parks Commissioner Amanda Fritz told the Mercury in October, repeating a sentiment she's voiced since taking over the parks bureau in 2013. "We've got great people who have been working for a pittance and love the jobs they do." 

The city's long talked about changing this scenario. It was ultimately spurred into action by the May 1 labor ruling, in which an arbitrator found the city had been improperly asking casual employees to do work that was supposed to be carried out by better-paid unionized workers.

Officials had a choice: Either chop parks services by eliminating those tasks, or bring more employees under the union's umbrella. At a time when Hales was pushing increased community center access as a means of helping curb the city's gun violence, the answer was clear.

In "phase one" of the agreement, approved in July, the city agreed to bring 86 positions under the union contract, a move that officials estimate will cost between $1.6 million and $2.3 million each year. City officials also agreed to sit back down with the union to identify other workers who deserved union representation—which includes a minimum $16.71 an hour after six months.

That "phase two" agreement was supposed to be reached December 1. Instead, the talks have become contentious—in part because of Hales' October 21 assurances.

Before it signs an agreement, Local 483 is pushing the city to commit to voluntarily recognizing recreation workers who'd like to join the union, but fall into a "gray area" under the arbitrator's ruling. On Wednesday, December 2, workers planned to present Portland City Council with a petition signed by hundreds of casual employees asking commissioners to live up to Hales' commitment.

The move is necessary, Askin says, because the city's shown a tendency to make unionizing difficult. (Portland parks rangers successfully unionized in 2014, for example, but only after clearing city roadblocks.)

"Unless we have something in writing, we don't think it's going to happen—especially with the history [human resources] has had with us," Askin says.

Human Resources Director Anna Kanwit was unavailable to talk about the issue before press time.

Hales' office said it couldn't comment on whether a proposal is on the way. "Ultimately, it is a council decision, but none of that happens until negotiations are concluded," Hales' spokeswoman, Sara Hottman, said in an email.

There are obvious reasons the city might be wary. According to Askin, voluntary recognition could mean as many as 900 more workers under the union's contract—phased in over a course of years. No one's got any hard estimates for how much that would cost, but a "worst-case scenario" drawn up by the city came out to around $8 million a year, Kanwit told the Mercury earlier this year.

Even if it's not that high, money can be hard to come by in a city with crumbling roads, and which is prioritizing its housing crisis. Hales has said the city will see improved finances next year, but nothing as lucrative as the $49 million extra during this year's budget. Even with that money, Portland City Council has asked city bureaus to, in Hales' words, "run a little lean" this year to help pay for the 86 parks workers who've already gotten raises.

Askin says the city can afford it.

"The mayor is putting in money toward addressing homelessness and we're supportive of that," she says. "That's why we're here. We have rec workers who have been homeless before.

"We have people who've struggled for years balancing the budget of parks on their backs."