A group of city of Portland office workers have launched an independent union drive and are planning to file for a union election within the next two weeks as they seek improved job security, wages, and working conditions.
The majority of the nearly 6,000 non-management city employees are already represented by a variety of unions. Now, the City of Portland Professional Workers Union (CPPW) wants to represent every non-management employee left in what its organizing committee wrote in an email to the Mercury is a “final push” for union representation at the city.
The CPPW declined to make an organizer available for an interview with the Mercury, opting to answer questions as an entire organizing committee instead.
The bulk of workers the union wants to represent are city office workers—a group of nearly 900 people including administrative specialists, coordinators, and analysts that includes a number of people who do not enjoy being the only city employees without union protections.
“When push comes to shove at budget time, we always take the hit first,” a CPPW slide deck reads.
CPPW has said they want more flexible work schedules, the ability to work fully remotely, guaranteed pay increases and cost-of-living adjustments, and better job protections. They’re also interested in changing the discipline process and establishing a professional development fund.
Office workers have been attempting to unionize on and off since 2019, and twice attempted to join existing unions like AFSCME Local 189 without success. While CPPW on its website placed the blame for those failures on the established unions—arguing that “they have not previously committed the resources necessary to pursue their strategy” for unionizing office workers—organizers said they have since repaired relationships with and received advice from the unions ahead of their independent effort.
Now, with the launch of CPPW—first reported by NW Labor Press—the workers leading the organizing push are taking a different approach.
If 50 percent of the members of a unit of public employees plus one member sign union cards in Oregon, they automatically win union recognition under the state’s employee card check law. But to the CPPW organizing committee, getting those signatures looked like an uphill battle.
“Trying to achieve well over 50% within 6 months before signatures expire has proven difficult [...] in past campaigns,” the organizing committee wrote in an email to the Mercury, “especially with our constituents working predominantly from home and in dozens of separate city locations when in the office.”
But that’s not the only way to form a public employee union. While public unions need signatures from 50 percent plus one to achieve automatic recognition, they can petition for a union election with the Oregon Employment Relations Board (OERB) if they get signatures from just 30 percent of their unit.
That’s the path CPPW decided to take. The union says that it hit the 30 percent signature mark in mid-January, and is expecting to petition the OERB by mid-February. The union will need to win just a simple majority of votes to achieve recognition.
It’s a strategy developed to meet the specific needs of the workers CPPW is trying to organize.
“We feel we have a greater chance of success by forming our own union that understands the specific needs of professional workers at the City of Portland and is not burdened with big union politics, divergent interests, extensive rules for local chapters, and expensive overhead costs,” the union’s website reads.
Though they’re not attempting to join an existing union, CPPW is enjoying the support of a number of other public employee unions anyway. Professional & Technical Employees Local 17 and AFSCME Local 189 have pitched in $1,000 apiece to CPPW’s organizing fund, with the District Council of Trade Unions contributing as well.
CPPW’s organizing push comes as the city is embroiled in a separate labor dispute with more than 600 workers in the parks, transportation, and wastewater divisions, who plan to begin striking on Thursday after failing to agree to a new contract.
In preparation, Mayor Ted Wheeler appears to be set to introduce a resolution at Portland City Council authorizing the city attorney to restrain the workers’ right to strike at Wednesday’s meeting—a move that could anger workers and labor leaders.
CPPW’s organizing committee said the city should view its unionization effort as a chance to strike a different chord.
“We see this as a great opportunity for the city to do a re-set in its relationship with its workforce,” the organizing committee wrote.
The election will be set for roughly six weeks after the union files, meaning that eligible workers should have their chance to vote at the end of April or beginning of May. The organizing committee is “highly confident” of its chances of winning the simple majority of votes it needs.
“We want what all American workers should want for themselves and for each other: The opportunity to earn a decent living, keep up with inflation, and be treated fairly at work,” the organizing committee wrote. “We believe union representation will help us achieve that, and we look forward to filing our petition and exercising our democratic right to vote.”