Oregon AFSCME represented workers at Volunteers of America Oregon (VOA) have finally reached a tentative agreement with their employer. The tentative agreement was signed yesterday evening, following eighteen months of contentious negotiations that led to multiple protests from workers and their union, including a May 14th sit-in which resulted in 10 arrests.
VOA is a small but important non-profit in Portland focused on helping clients to recover from substance abuse and addiction. The seventy-person bargaining unit, is mostly made up of Counselors at two facilities in Portland. Workers began organizing with Oregon AFSCME in early 2016, due to low wages, high-turnover, and a want to have a large voice in client care decisions. In Sept. of 2016, workers voted in favor of joining Oregon AFSCME by a margin of 46-3.
Bargaining began in January 2017, and was almost immediately hostile. VOA gave out raises and an extra vacation day to non-union employees, explicitly excluding organized employees, and hired a union-busting firm to bargain the contract. What followed was months of stalled bargaining with little progress in what looked like an attempt to scuttle negotiation and wait workers out. Despite months of protest, and unfair labor practices VOA would not settle a contract.
In Dec. of 2017, workers held a community rally where both Rep. Jennifer Williamson and Rep. Rob Nosse spoke out in support of workers. While workers continued to make progress, and move at the table, VOA refused to sign any contract with a “Union Security” clause, meaning that workers would not have to be part of the union. However, workers had voted 46-3 and it was a clear sign that VOA had little to no respect for the choice workers had made.
While negotiations continued to be stalled, the situation escalated in the Spring as workers held a rally outside VOA’s administrative offices on April 25th, followed by the May 14thsit-in. The sit-in which resulted in ten activists being arrested marked a turning point in the negotiations and showed VOA that workers would not back down.
Another protest was scheduled for June 18th, to picket a fundraising gala the organization was planning on holding. However, VOA relented on their objections to a union security clause and with the signing of a tentative agreement on a contract the protest was cancelled.
For workers, both at VOA and within the behavioral health industry this is huge win. The mostly non-profit industry relies on high-skilled low wage workers to do the lifesaving front-line work, while a profiteering class of administrators rakes in salaries often north of one-hundred and fifty thousand dollars. That dynamic has led to high turnover and caseloads at behavioral health organizations along with unsafe working conditions at some facilities. The hard-fought win should be a signal to the industry that workers will no longer allow themselves to be exploited and that there is a strong community ready to stand with them in support.
“We are proud and fought really hard to get this agreement. We were able to secure wage increases and system improvements through this process, and we have a contract that gives us a path to raises each of the next three years, along with a just cause clause and numerous clarifications about the work we do. More than anything it really showed us that by sticking together and building community support we can fight back and make positive change both in our lives and that of our clients.” said Alex Rice, VOA bargaining team member.
Workers still need to vote on the tentative agreement to finalize the process and will likely do so in the next couple weeks.