Portland Water Bureau is one of the many city bureaus staffed by members of DCTU
Portland Water Bureau is one of the many city bureaus staffed by members of DCTU City of Portland

More than one thousand workers employed by the city of Portland could go on strike by mid-January if the two sides are unable to reach a compromise on an open labor contract.

The District Council of Trade Unions (DCTU) is a conglomeration of several unions representing city staff, including AFSCME Local 189, IBEW Local 48, Plumbers Local 290, Painters and Allied Trades District Council 5, Machinists District Lodge 24, Auto Mechanics District Lodge 24, and Operating Engineers Local 701. DCTU's 1,200 members work in nearly all city departments, and are employed as administrative staff, building inspectors, water filtration experts, electricians, police record keepers, and accountants—to name a few.

The majority of union members work for Portland Water Bureau, Portland Bureau of Transportation, Development Services, and Portland Police Bureau (as non-sworn staff).

After two years of pandemic-delayed negotiations over the union's labor contract with the city, DCTU declared an impasse on December 13. Now, with the city refusing to budge on DCTU's demands for more equitable cost of living wage increases, competitive wages with private employers, and other workplace requests, the union is poised to authorize a strike as soon as January 10. They'd be permitted to go on strike ten days after the vote.

Rob Martineau, president of AFSCME Local 189, says the pending strike feels a little "like Groundhog Day." Martineau, a Portland Water Bureau employee, said the past three contract negotiations with the city have ended in a similar impasse. He was part of the DCTU bargaining team during its last contract negotiations in 2017, where 90 percent of DCTU members voted to strike. In that case, the city conceded to the union's requests before members walked off the job.

"It's frustrating that it always takes this kind of labor unrest to get to an agreement," said Martineau. "It's with some dismay that we’re here again. I had hoped for better outcomes moving forward."

This step comes after the union agreed to take additional furlough days and pause cost of living wage adjustments in March 2020, as the city braced for COVID-19's economic toll. Martineau said that the sacrifices union members made during the pandemic—and the hard work they put in to keep the city running—should be acknowledged by adhering to DCTU's contract asks.

The city has offered DCTU a 1.6 percent cost of living raise, which would be paid out retroactively to July 1, 2021 and a 5 percent cost of living raise to go into effect on July 1, 2022. Martineau argues that this increase isn't consistent with the national inflation rate, which rose by more than 6 percent over the last year. The city has also rejected DCTU's ask to create a pay increase scale based on workers' tenure at the city to reward longevity and improve staff retention. The city suffers when it's run by short-term workers, Martineau explained.

"Being able to navigate a place like the city, which some people call a bureaucracy, comes with experience," he said.

As another effort to retain workers, DCTU has also requested the city adjust its pay rates to be competitive with outside employers, especially within trade industries. Martineau said he knows of many union members who left their city job during the pandemic for a better-paying, similar position with a private employer. He also knows of several members who are prepared to quit if the city doesn't approve a pay hike.

"If they’re not brought up to market wages they’re going to leave," he said. "They can be working for more money tomorrow. There’s no lack of opportunity for folks in DCTU."

If DCTU does strike, Martineau said the impacts will be quickly felt across the city.

"Water treatment, sewage treatment, plumbing repairs, building inspections, construction, accountants cutting checks for contractors, parking enforcement, street light maintenance, business support through the [Office of Community and Civic Life]... all of that will could grind to a halt," said Martineau.

Martineau is eager for the city to prevent DCTU from having to go on strike. That could be achieved by the city's bargaining team proposing a new agreement to DCTU that satisfies members' concerns before January 10.

Cathy Bless, the city's chief human resource officer, is "confident" that the city's current contract offer already meets DCTU's needs. In an email to the Mercury, Bless outlined the city's offer, which includes an increased tool allowance, a one-time bonus of $1,500, an expanded professional development fund, and slight wage increases for a number of trade positions.

Bless wrote that, if the union does go on strike, there are four areas the city would prioritize:

"Service Continuity - Establishing priorities for services and functions to be performed or suspended.
Security - Ensuring the protection of the employer’s property and personnel.
Communications - Coordinating, developing, and distributing communication to various stakeholders.
Policy Decisions - Taking decisive action regarding pay and personnel issues that arise throughout a strike."

The city is meeting with DCTU's bargaining team today, and has another meeting scheduled for January 11. If DCTU members receive a new contract agreement from the city that meets their needs, members can vote to call off the impasse and looming strike at any time. Martineau hopes for this outcome. In the meantime, he'll be joining a rally for DCTU workers outside of Portland City Hall on January 8, organized by the Portland chapter of Democratic Socialists of America.

"We'd like to help the city uphold the values they say they stand for," he said.