Ross Grami

A day after Volunteers of America (VOA) Oregon employees—joined by other local labor rights organizations—held a union protest outside of the nonprofit's administrative building, staff found an email from VOA Oregon CEO Kay Toran in their work inbox.

"In my 19 years as President/CEO of VOA Oregon and my entire professional career, I have never witnessed such disrespectful and unprofessional conduct," wrote Toran. "It is extremely disappointing to know that the union... would view this activity as productive and positive means to achieve their objectives."

Toran's referring to the members of Oregon AFSCME, AFL-CIO, and Portland's Jobs with Justice who participated in a brief sit-in inside the administration building during the May 14 protest—which led to their arrest. AFSCME has represented the VOA union in its inaugural contract negotiations—negotiations that began after 85 percent of VOA employees voted to unionize in 2016.

This union specifically represents workers at VOA's Portland residential treatment centers for individuals on probation or parole. With demands for better wages (and, at the least, a clear pay scale), employees say Toran has refused to budge on any substantive contract demands, forcing them to organize rallies and protests.

According to Ross Grami, a AFSCME spokesperson, members of AFSCME (including the Executive Director Stacy Chamberlain) volunteered to be arrested on May 14 in place of actual VOA workers.

"If your organization is speaking out—if it's hollering to be heard—and you're not listening to them? That speaks volumes."

In her letter, Toran placed blame on AFSCME for the protest, making it appear like VOA employees had nothing to do with it. VOA employee Alex Rice says that was textbook union-busting—and completely false.

"I'm disappointed in Kay [Toran] for taking this moment and using it to divide us. She put the blame on ASFME, but this is what we, her employees, want," says Rice, a education and prevention specialist at the VOA's Men's Residential Center.

Rice, like many VOA employees, wasn't able to attend the protest because she was working. She said some employees opted out of attending out of fear of retaliation from upper management.

"I'm so happy we had people that showed up for us," she says. "[Toran] hasn't given us a voice, but [ASFME] did for us."

Multiple VOA workers told the Mercury that Toran and VOA Oregon's board of directors have refused to speak or meet with any employees outside of their tense, slow-moving contract negotiation meetings. Rice says she doesn't know "whether it's out of fear or complete disrespect."

During negotiations, VOA has allegedly requested the contract allows new employees the "right to choose" whether they want to join the union after hire. This idea is also a standard union-busting technique, since it forces new employees to feel divisive pressure from management right after their hire.

"[Toran] says she cares about future employee's rights," Rice says. "But what the hell am I going to do with this 'right to choose' when I don't have enough money to live in my apartment? She's never cared about our rights."

Many of Rice's coworkers shared similar complaints in reply-all responses to Toran's email. One excerpt from a longtime worker:

"I’ve never understood why someone that pumps gas or, as I personally know, my girlfriends 16 year old daughter that stacks boxes at a supermarket can make more money than I do working in a place that truly changes and helps people’s lives, gets their families back, gives them new life, teaches them a design for living, how to actually function in society, and teaches them to be good community members and all around better people."

In an interview with the Mercury, Toran said she is "respectful of the process" and "looking forward" to the outcome of these negotiations. She would not comment on anything else related to the union.

Vialante Viera, a drug-free rehousing manager, has been working for VOA Oregon for eight years. Every time she's asked for a cost-of-living raise, Viera said, her managers tell her "it's not in the budget."

Viera says many VOA employees with extensive experience in drug and mental health counseling are compensated around $17 an hour. That's an annual salary of around $35,000. Rice says she knows of people who've worked at VOA for over a decade that are still making a salary of $27,000 (or $13 an hour).

During the union's contract negotiations, VOA Oregon has refused to share its finances with union representatives. According to company tax filings, Toran made an annual salary of $178,000 in 2015 (the latest data made public).

"We all have families and bills to pay, just like [Toran]," Viera says. Viera's been trying to buy a house for a while, but her stagnant salary has made that impossible. For her, a fair union contract could bring her and her colleagues stability—plus the basic sense of respect from upper management.

"If your organization is speaking out—if it's hollering to be heard—and you're not listening to them?" Viera says. "That speaks volumes."