More than 600 City of Portland employees are planning to go on strike February 2 as contract negotiations between the city and their union, Portland City Laborers (PCL), have dragged on for nearly 10 months. Union members say the city has not kept their wages in step with inflation, effectively giving pay cuts to hundreds of operations and maintenance workers.

“They are the workers who showed up, in person, throughout the pandemic to keep our City running,” said a PCL press release Wednesday. “In response, City decision makers have treated their safety and financial security as a low priority.”

PCL, a subset of Laborers International Union of North America Local 483, has been in contract negotiations with the city since March 2022 and working without an agreed contract since June 2022. The main sticking point in negotiations has been the city’s wage increase offers that the union does not believe keeps up with the rising cost of living and record-high inflation. The city’s most recent offer included a 5 percent retroactive cost-of-living increase for 2022, 5 percent cost-of-living increase in July 2023, and a guaranteed 1 percent pay increase in July 2023. PCL workers are requesting a 7.9 percent cost-of-living increase for 2022—comparable to the US inflation rate—no cap for future cost-of-living increases, and wage adjustments that would keep the city’s pay competitive with private sector work.

“It's asking that [PCL workers] not receive a pay cut based on inflation, for all of their efforts,” said PCL member James O’Laughlen in a phone interview. “It's not just the decent thing to do, it’s a smart thing to do in terms of basic investment in essential work. If we don't get a good contract for our members this go around, the city is going to face real challenges in recruiting and retaining—more than they've seen already. Those costs, in my opinion, will far outstrip any costs associated with meeting us with our needs at the bargaining table”

Local 483 told the Oregon Employment Relations Board they were at an impasse with the city in December, as first reported by NW Labor Press, a condition that must be met before PCL could move to strike.

In a bargaining update posted to union members on January 14, PCL’s bargaining team said that the “city continues to plead poverty” as a reason it cannot offer higher wages.

According to O’Laughlen, the strike would have immediate impacts on the city’s operations and maintenance. The striking workers are heavily involved in the city’s wastewater treatment, ensuring that the flow of millions of gallons of wastewater is properly treated to go out to the Willamette River. O’Laughlen says that without the union members, the wastewater treatment plants may go unmanned.The union also includes sewer line repair crews, parks workers who maintain and clean the city’s green spaces, and transportation maintenance workers who are responsible for clearing streets during snowy and icy conditions. While no ice is currently in the forecast, overnight temperatures in Portland are expected to drop into the mid-twenties during the planned strike and the Portland Bureau of Transportation has already been distributing deicer in the streets.

“There's few areas throughout the city that we don't touch in one way or another,” O’Laughlen said. “It’s an exhaustive list and the impact will be pretty immediate, especially on the sewer side of our work.”

According to a city press release Wednesday, “citywide planning efforts are underway to coordinate continued city services should a strike occur.” O’Laughlen says the strike can be called off or ended when the union bargaining team and city have reached a tentative contract.

PCL workers are planning to hold a rally in front of City Hall Saturday, January 28, at noon to demand the city agree to higher wages.