Founded in 1963, Eugene’s AFSCME union chapter predates the Oregon law allowing public employees to unionize.
One of the core reasons for organizing, back then and today, is to protect workers from sudden termination, but the city of Eugene has proposed a contract that would allow it to lay off workers without notifying the union. The local AFSCME chapter represents about 620 city workers who are involved with street work, wastewater, park maintenance, work at the library and other community service-related jobs.
Negotiations between the city and the AFSCME Local 1724 now require mediation since the city wants the right to lay off workers without consulting the union, chapter representatives say. They say the city isn’t being equitable in its offer, especially since the jobs are some of the lowest-paid with the city. Compared to non-union workers, the package doesn’t offer fair contributions to health insurance, they say.
The city tells Eugene Weekly that it is still actively bargaining with the union, and that union workers are on track for receiving pay increases. The layoff proposal is meant to avoid shifting employees from other departments.
“We’re the working part of the city,” says Dal Ollek, who’s been a city employee for 27 years and is the president of the local union chapter. “We’re the blue collar. You see us in the streets. You see us climbing the trees. We’re cleaning the parks. We’re providing the services that make this city run. And a lot of us are feeling disrespected by this administration.”
The union’s contract with Eugene, which was a one-year extension of a previous contract, ended July 1. After months of negotiations, the city notified the state’s Employment Relations Board that it is requesting mediation, a process where a third party steps in to assist.
City spokesperson Laura Hammond says via email that the two parties were negotiating for 180 days and the city is allowed to pursue mediation after 150 days. The city decided the process would benefit from a third party, she adds.
Ollek says the city management has delayed the negotiation process and decided to pursue mediation since the union wouldn’t accept layoff language that it’s never seen before.
The city first proposed the right to lay off union-represented workers for a year, regardless of seniority, OIlek says. “We pushed back and said not many of our members can go a year without pay,” he says. The city’s current demand is to have the right to cut one-quarter of an employee’s hours for up to six months anytime it wants, he says. Currently, the union must approve layoffs suggested by the city.
The union wanted to ensure workers wouldn’t be targeted by management and would only face layoff in an emergency, Ollek says. “They stated to us that they would only do this in a crisis, financial downturn,” he adds. “But they wouldn’t agree to put that in writing in the contract.”
Hammond says the proposal the city offered “reflects changes that would allow for temporary reduction of some hours without triggering the opportunity for affected employees to move to other departments, teams, or functional areas and displace other workers or require them to be temporarily retrained. Any affected employees could also displace additional workers.”
The union would still have the right to influence and engage about alternatives to workforce reductions, she adds.
The financial side of the contract has some equity issues, Ollek says.
The AFSCME’s workers are some of the lowest paid workers, Ollek says, but they pay more for health insurance. The union members pay 8 percent on health insurance premiums, but the police and fire department pay 5 percent. “All city of Eugene employees have basically the same health plan. Yet AFSCME members, the lowest paid workers, are paying 3 percent more for their health plan,” he adds.
And comparing contributions to police and fire department employees is appropriate, says Monica Bielski Boris, AFSCME council representative. Many AFSCME workers have stepped into the public safety role. She says if AFSCME workers are expected to monitor campsites in Eugene, they shouldn’t have to pay more for health insurance than Eugene Police Department’s community service officers. “Our library workers are trained on how to use Narcan,” she says, referring to the lifesaving antidote to counteract a fatal outcome from an opioid overdose. “They do more than just shelve books.”
Hammond says non-union workers received zero living increases and market adjustment because of the pandemic, so they’re getting 5.6 percent pay increase starting January 2022. But some AFSCME workers could receive up to 11 percent increase when accounting for cost of living adjustments and market adjustments, Hammond says.
However, the union offers a different view of the wages. Ollek says the union sees the pay increase as a 1 percent increase because the contract and fiscal year start in July. A 2 percent increase in January is equivalent to 1 percent for the year, he adds.
Boris says the union is working with the city to see which employees would receive the pay increase Hammond mentioned. But comparing Eugene city workers to other cities — such as Salem — wages are much lower, she adds. A cost of living adjustment, however, would apply to every AFSCME worker.
The larger issue with the city’s proposed contract, Ollek says, is the precedent the city could set if it succeeds in securing the right to circumvent the union and issue layoffs directly.
“No other bargaining unit in the state is facing this language,” he says. “If we allow this in our contract, you don’t think Springfield or Albany or these other government agencies are going to be looking at our contract and say, ‘Let’s give that a try up here.’”
AFSCME Local 1724 is holding a bargaining solidarity rally at Kesey Square at 5:15 pm Monday, Nov. 8.
This story is a part of Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.