Portland Japanese Garden employees say they love the work they do, but they need to see change in the workplace in order to continue serving the community at one of Portland's most beloved destinations. 

On April 22, employees from the Japanese Garden's cafe and gift shop announced their intent to unionize with Laborers' International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 483. 

In a statement to the Mercury, unionizing employees wrote that over the past six months, "we have come to the realization that our own needs must be met in order for us to be able to provide a space of peace and harmony for our guests." 

"We believe the [workplace] issues to be mainly systemic rather than personal," the statement reads. "But the uncomfortable behavior many of us have been subjected to by individuals who have taken it personally since we started advocating for ourselves has only reinforced our need for greater protections and outside support."

Managers at the garden, however, are urging employees to vote "no" in the union election next month. 

"After carefully considering the petition, Portland Japanese Garden does not believe a union is a good fit for our staff and our operations, and we hope you vote ‘no’ in the upcoming election," Lisa Christy, the garden's executive director, wrote in an email to members of the unit. "We know Union organizers may be making promises to you, such as...you will get higher pay or better benefits. However, there are no guarantees in this process."

Christy wrote that sometimes unions "make promises they cannot keep," and said "the only guaranteed result from unionization is that employees will have to pay non-negotiable union dues." 

Dashiell Harrison, a LiUNA field representative working with garden employees, told the Mercury union dues won't apply until the union's bargaining committee approves a contract and members of the unit vote to ratify it. 

Harrison also said managers have repeatedly echoed the email's message during in-person conversations with staff. 

"Employees have been cornered or taken outside in groups of two by management and asked repeatedly if they had 'seen' management's anti-union email," Harrison told the Mercury. "[But] they are bearing up very well in the face of this crass intimidation." 

Managers have tried to dissuade employees, warning negotiations could be fruitless. 

Christy wrote that while the Japanese Garden managers would bargain in good faith, the garden wouldn’t have to comply with union bargaining requests. 

“A union can only ask for something. No union can make Portland Japanese Garden do anything,” she wrote. 

Managers also seemed particularly concerned about the union interfering in direct communications and personal connection between managers and employees. But employees say they've tried to communicate directly with their managers for change in the workplace—and it hasn't worked. 

"There have been attempts from many employees at the garden to facilitate positive change through existing channels," the union's statement reads. "Unfortunately, direct communication between us as individuals and management has been ineffective at best and harmful at worst." 

In a statement to the Mercury, Japanese Garden Communications Manager Will Lerner wrote the garden "deeply values its employees and respects their right to engage in protected union activity." He also said starting last December—following a Mercury investigation detailing employee concerns about the garden's workplace culture—the organization "initiated an active listening campaign to hear and address employee concerns." 

"As a result, we have implemented several operational initiatives that prioritize and support staff," Lerner wrote. "As a cultural institution that believes in the power of dialogue, we look forward to productive conversations with these individuals that honors them, demonstrates our care for all our employees, and allows us to continue to serve our community." 

The December Mercury article outlines several issues employees reported about their workplace, including concerns about racial insensitivity from Japanese Garden leadership. Staff members were particularly concerned about the garden's CEO, Steve Bloom, and then-board president Drake Snodgrass, using anti-Japanese slurs while talking about the history of the Japanese Garden. Employees told the Mercury when they asked Bloom and Snodgrass to use different language, they were met with hostility.

Shortly after the Mercury published our investigation, Bloom and Snodgrass published a letter pledging to stop using the racial epithet. 

"Recently, our internal community has raised issues publicly that have caused us to step back and consider how we share the important lessons our Garden is intended to teach," the letter stated. "Through listening and dialog, we have come to understand that our internal community is right...we pledge never to use that slur in telling our story by anyone who has not experienced its use firsthand. We deeply apologize to anyone this may have hurt or offended and we ask for your forgiveness." 

Employees say other workplace concerns haven't been properly addressed. Staff members reported an elitist attitude among the garden's management, evident by deep pay disparities between leadership and customer-facing staff. In the union's statement, employees said they appreciated the "well-intended gestures" from their management over the past few months, including "a slight cost of living increase, a listening session, and a new water fountain." But employees haven't found those changes adequate, and they want union protection and support during future negotiations. 

The union's bargaining unit currently consists of 19 employees from the garden's cafe and gift shop. Organizers initially hoped to include more workers in the unit, including gardeners and customer relations staff, but employees in those departments didn't express as clear of an interest in joining the union. However, organizers say there will be opportunities for more employees to join in the future. 

The union vote is set for June 6. Organizers are optimistic employees will vote "yes." 

"We love our work and care deeply about this community...[But] low pay and unfair working conditions have led to incredibly high staff turnover and burnout," employees wrote in a statement about the unionizing effort. "Some of the things we’ll be bargaining for are higher wages, fair scheduling, and a workplace safety committee."