Portland police officers have arrested nine activists for holding a sit-in at the headquarters of Volunteers of America (VOA) in Southeast Portland this morning. Those arrested included AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain and Oregon AFSCME Executive Director Stacy Chamberlain (Tom's daughter). They nine were part of a larger contingent of protesters that met today to show their support of the VOA workers union's year-long struggle to finalize a contract with their management.
The rally comes a day before union employees will meet with VOA's local officials to continue negotiations over its first contract.
None of those arrested were VOA employees, but all were local labor activists protesting in solidarity with the union—including members of the Oregon AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and Portland's Jobs with Justice group. The nine arrestees, all charged with trespassing, have since been released from custody.
The VOA union specifically represents the 70 or so mental health counselors, social workers, and specialized drug and alcohol treatment experts employed at one of two residential substance abuse treatment centers in Portland. All of their clients have gone through the Multnomah County criminal justice system and are on parole or probation.
According to longtime VOA employee Sean Luke, VOA's management has done the bare minimum needed to work with its 2-year-old union. And it's getting old.
"VOA has to do very little to retain any respect from its employees," Luke told the Mercury . "It hasn't."
The union has specifically asked for a equitable pay scale to compensate its small, overworked staff—many employees with specialized college degrees for their position make no more than $11.50 per hour. These low wages have created a high turnover rate for employees at the two VOA residential centers, a side effect that trickles down to impact the centers' vulnerable clients.
"We work with a community that relies on consistency," Luke said. Many clients who graduate out of the program may return to the center after a relapse, or to attend support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous. "Seeing a familiar face when they return is so important," he added. "It's such a big part of the recovery process. People don't always realize that."
Even VOA clients recognize the staff aren't being treated fairly. Luke recalled one client, after hearing about heard the union efforts, telling him: "About time you stood up for yourself!"
Despite the union's requests to improve worker compensation, VOA hasn't added any substantive changes to its draft contract before the union. Their unmoving position on the union's demands have inspired employees to hold rallies and sit-ins to draw attention to their boss' apathy.
"We're not asking for much," Luke said. "But a little bit of movement would be helpful."