Lately there's been news coverage about an unlikely union organizing in Portland: On March 30, the nail techs, hair stylists, and other workers of popular local salon and spa Dosha rallied to unionize, and won. This story is about how a handful of people came together because they wanted to improve their working conditions. I was one of them and would like to share my experience with you, from an inside perspective. Ten years ago I signed up to become a hair stylist in Germany, where I was born and where unions are much more common. I moved to Portland in 2006, was hired by Dosha in 2007, and I quit in 2010.

Our goal last summer was simple: Returning roughly 70 signed union ballot cards to Joe, our organizer, before management would fire all of us once they found out what we were up to. Joe kept pushing for 70, close to half of Dosha's eligible employees. To be eligible to join a union you cannot be a manager or have authority in any other way over other employees. Federal law only requires 30 percent of all eligible employees. But Joe wanted us to be safe the day we submitted the cards to corporate management. And with a number like that, it would be clear: This was more than just a fluke.

The concerns of salon workers like myself ranged from health code violations to discrimination and bullying at work. About a year into working at their Hawthorne location I couldn't help but notice that in the hierarchy of Dosha, the workers came last. Through my eyes, what used to look at first glance like a pristine upscale salon turned into a building in desperate need of repairs and maintenance.

The spa floor was contaminated with black mold; meanwhile on the hair floor, water would break through the ceilings from the upstairs on a daily basis. And then there were sales goals: Dosha expected every employee to sell $15 worth of products for every service they perform. On average, 14 out of 16 stylists failed to make the goal bimonthly. For an esthetician, around 20 brow waxes equal $300 in product sales. Technicians were often denied promotions or vacation time based on their performance in sales, and other indicators for good performance like return clients or good productivity were hardly taken into account in career meetings.

In 2008, two events changed the way I thought about the company for good: Despite record sales, Dosha introduced a pay freeze that would last two years, and the Aveda Institute of Portland (AIP for short), opened in the Pearl District—a beauty school owned by the very same people who owned Dosha. It meant fresh new hires who were eager to start their beauty careers. This is great, I thought, I'd always toyed with the idea of becoming an educator.

As more and more of them were hired onto my team, I started seeing a pattern: These girls were hired in such quantities that it was near impossible for them to reach our sales goals. Dosha wrote out a new contract specially formulated for AIP students: Their hourly rate was $12 to start, and if they failed to make the sales goal, they'd get dropped to minimum wage. Too many girls meant not enough hours to go around, and no opportunity to make sales goals or money. And they couldn't afford health care or make payments on their loans.

Most AIP graduates quit within months after they started. Each time that I'd hear one of them say, “I never want to do hair again in my life,” I became very upset. Whether or not it was purposefully done, I'd had enough of it.

In my own experience, people come to witty conclusions about workers in the beauty industry, considering who we hairstylists, nail techs, and massage therapists actually are:

“According to the Department of Labor Statistics, the need for hairdressers, hairstylists, and cosmetologists will increase by 20 percent by 2018, while employment demand for skin care specialists is expected to grow by 38 percent. Other beauty professionals such as manicurists and pedicurists can expect employment demand growth of 19 percent. This demand for new employees in the beauty industry is believed to be a result of a greater demand in services from aging baby boomers and a younger generation more likely to use beauty treatments and enhancements at a younger age.”

Beauty careers are more attainable than college degrees, with only one to two years of education required and license costing between $20-40,000. Many of my former co-workers are single mothers who could not afford health plans offered to them by the company.

While a small salon in America currently employs, on average, seven people, in metropolitan areas salon and spa chains like Dosha, with up to 200 employees, are becoming more common. A nationwide example is Regis Corp, with hundreds of salons in various states. It's much like one would imagine a hair factory. As an industry newcomer, you need experience. It's tough to open your own business, and taking on a job with an established salon the size of Dosha seems like a safe option. The question is: Who looks out for the workers when salons go corporate?

Most Sundays last summer I came home late to my stuffy Belmont Street apartment asking myself this very question. Exhausted both from the salon work and the weighty secret of organizing a union, I’d often fall asleep almost immediately. Other nights, I would lay awake for hours completely paranoid and at war with myself for what I had been caught up in.

Over time a small group of trusted people started collecting evidence and familiarized themselves with federal and state law. We created a mailing list and used it to record conversations with managers, or exchanged photos of lunch break violations or broken equipment. Our friends at the union told us we had to silently add to the pile, which would eventually serve as ammunition during contract negotiations.
During this time we often had to remind ourselves that we loved working with each other at Dosha. It was important to remember what had inspired us to take on all this work. We didn't want to leave and work somewhere else; instead we wanted to make things better for us and our clients.

On February 22, 2011, we had all the signatures and dropped off a letter from Madelyn Elder, the president of CWA (Communications Workers of America), to Dosha management. We could start campaigning for the union out in the open. This however did not take away the fear of losing one's job. In both Madelyn and Joe's experience, management often tries to get the strongest union supporters to quit in the campaigning phase before the elections.

On March 30, 145 eligible employees were asked to participate in the official election, and booths were set up in all locations. The National Labor Relations Board then proceeded to take all ballots to their office where they would count them out in front of all parties. I looked over at my friends waiting for the result. Everyone did their own math, adding up numbers holding each others hands. I couldn't remember the last time my heart was beating this fast. Then they announced 79 Yes votes and 66 No votes. We won!

Within the following month, a bargaining committee was put together to represent workers during negotiations for the first union contract. Dosha hired Republican party member Bob Tiernan, who brought in Al Orheim, a business consultant, to represent management. By law both parties have to come to an agreement within 16 months after election day. Failure to do so will result in re-election. From one of the committee members I learned that Orheim often appears rather unprepared or misinformed during bargaining meetings. He has been taped stating that: “He is not going to TA (tentative agreement) anything before he sees the full contract.” Solving one of the most prominent union issues, affordable health care, has been a draining process. Union supporters learned that between campaigning and election day, Dosha secretly signed a new insurance agreement with Kaiser, saving the company $84 per employee, while it raised the deductible from $3,000 to $5,000. Because the agreement was signed with the union already campaigning, insurance issues should have been subject to union negotiations. It seems Dosha is in favor of re-election instead of coming to an agreement. This would unmask Orheim's lack of professionalism, a part of a technique referred to as stalling in union jargon. A contract agreement is due in May 2012, and it would be the first time in American history.

On June 30, 2011, CWA brought over 100 union supporters to the Hawthorne salon, demanding better working conditions. In response, managers called police to dissolve the crowd.

When you're Joe Crane, you've seen it all before. But for me it was an extraordinary experience that I will never forget. l have learned from strippers who unionize: hairstylists can too.

If you are a Dosha client or would like to read up on recent progress, show support for workers and look at photographs, visit their Facebook page.