By Isabelle B, Red Phoenix correspondent, Oregon.
The COVID-19 pandemic has been hard on workers everywhere, especially those essential workers on the front lines. Short staffing, stagnant wages, and inflation have been creating miserable conditions for the working class, but these conditions have been agitating and activating people as well. For the workers of Laborer’s International Union of North America (LiUNA) Local 483 in Portland, hours on the job increased without adequate overtime pay, safety measures, or benefits.
LiUNA Local 483 represents city workers of Portland—employees of parks and recreation, public maintenance, and wastewater treatment. Over the course of the last seven months, the union has been bargaining with the city over the terms of their new contract, set to last four years. The terms the City of Portland has been offering are dismal, with wage increases below the rate of inflation, and cuts to the retirement and healthcare benefits that the workers had been guaranteed in the past. Months of negotiations, with the City of Portland never offering adequate, have led to the workers of Local 483 striking.
The strike began in the first hour of Thursday, February 2, 2023, with picket lines developing at various sites across the city. Members of the Pacific Northwest division of the American Party of Labor attended the picket line in solidarity with the workers at the Columbia Wastewater Treatment Plant in northern Portland. I interviewed Zach Lamire, a member of Local 483 and wastewater treatment operator, about the treatment of workers at the plant, contract negotiations, and the events that lead to this strike.
“During the COVID crisis, we ended up coming in and working a lot of extra emergency-stated hours that were supposed to be returned to us in compensation. The City said at the time that they could not compensate us for this, and basically that they would get us back for it during wage negotiations,” Lamire said.
But when contract negotiations began in July of 2022, the City of Portland only offered workers a 5% cost-of-living-adjustment (COLA) wage increase, not even covering the rate of inflation.
“Those negotiations extended. Every offer since was a give-take experience. They would offer our wages to be increased, good, but then they would take our retirement or take our health benefits. Then they would give those benefits back on the next offer but take our wages down,” Lamire continued.
After several months of negotiations and disrespectful offers from the City, the workers authorized a strike.
“We will stand this line until the City understands that we do a really serious and important job. And that’s all we’re asking for—is to be respected and compensated for that job reasonably.”
The City’s response to the strike was to hire a small crew of private contract workers to replace the union workers in their essential duties. These contractors were provided police escorts to cross the picket line at the protest of rank and file union members and community supporters. Portland mayor Ted Wheeler also accused striking workers of violence, leading to an increased police presence at the picket line.
“Mayor Ted Wheeler put out that message, saying that he basically only cared about the… people replacing us. Whereas some of those people, as they were entering and leaving our facilities, were driving 40 miles an hour to where they could’ve killed people. And they didn’t stop, they didn’t care, and some of our people were actually bumped while they were going through but [Wheeler] never said anything about that. That was left out of the news, that was left out of every report,” Lamire said.
However, this response from the City did not stop community members, other union workers, and socialists from standing at the picket line for over 48 hours. As the private contractors hired by the City of Portland arrived, picketers moved to block the driveways, until multiple police units arrived and threatened arrest. As it began to rain and temperatures dropped into the high 30s, bonfires were lit and community supporters provided food and drinks. Wastewater operators explained to the community members that with the rain, the tanks they typically operated in the facility would likely begin to overflow, leading to raw sewage leaking into the Columbia River and the streets of Portland—due to a lack of expertise from the temporary workers.
With the rain on Saturday, February 4th, new negotiations between the City of Portland and LiUNA 483 began once more. By the morning of February 5th, a tentative agreement was reached.
The new contract lays out wage increases over the next three and a half years, with the first year’s agreement of an “increase [of] 8%-21.5% (top of the scale) effective and retroactive to 7/1/22.“
“A message I would send out to anybody who has anything coming up, and you need our support from LiUNA 483, you let us know. Because I think this is the year for the working class, and I think if we don’t stand together now, I don’t think we ever will,” Lamire said.
You can read LiUNA 483’s summary of the tentative agreement on the Laborers’ Local 483 website.
This strike and persistent struggle from the workers of LiUNA 483 has shown that when workers stand together and know their worth, they can win, even against the powerful interests of the rich and ruling class politicians. As workers across the country continue to unionize and fight for their class interests, a brighter future is being built—towards working democracy and socialism.
Categories: Labor, U.S. News, Workers Struggle