According to a local union representative, last week's settlement of a class-action lawsuit between Rose Garden janitorial workers and their employer may bring an additional benefit to the Portland area — increased union membership.
Terrell Enterprises Inc. — which owns Swan Island-based ServiceMaster Building Maintenance, the janitorial contractor for the Rose Garden arena — agreed to pay $84,125 to a group of past and present workers. The workers filed the suit on the grounds that the company failed to pay them for time spent on the job.
The lawsuit arose out of an organizing effort by Service Employees International Union Local 49, which has been attempting for some time to enlist more custodians in the Portland area.
"I think that the lawsuit was definitely a victory for low-wage workers in the city of Portland, and especially for janitors, who see these kinds of abuses frequently in their industry," said Felisa Hagins, SEIU Local 49's political director. "As far as unionizing local janitors, I think the lawsuit will shine a light onto the industry and encourage more of them to organize."
As yet, there has been no contract reached between ServiceMaster and the unionized janitors at the Rose Garden and the other downtown-area buildings the company contracts to clean. In fact, the company is refusing to bargain with the union, which has been urging the company's employers to either hire union members or switch contractors.
"They're not interested in representing these employees," said ServiceMaster attorney Rick VanCleave after the settlement. "They're only interested in getting ServiceMaster fired."
Despite the impasse with ServiceMaster, Hagins said that the union hopes settlement will give a boost to their recruiting efforts, which have been largely stagnant — a situation that is not unusual, given the several decades of declining nationwide union membership across a range of industries. If nothing else, she said, the settlement will show workers who are considering unionizing that they don't have to fear reprisal from their employers.
The Portland settlement comes on the heels of a series of positive outcomes for SEIU chapters around the nation, Hagins said. The union recently won a contract for more than 3,000 janitors at the University of Miami, while some 5,000 janitors in Houston, Texas joined earlier this year.
In Oregon, she said, the union over the past few years has organized janitors with Summers Building Management Co., a major custodial contractor, and is continuing to add "residual" members from additional Summers contracts.
SEIU is part of the Change to Win labor federation, a group of unions that broke away from the AFL-CIO umbrella labor organization in 2005 in order to pursue a more aggressive strategy to keep the labor movement alive and well in the United States. At the close of the 20th century, union membership was reaching an all-time low — only 12 percent of workers were unionized in 2000, including only 8 percent of private-sector employees. As union membership has declined, Change to Win supporters say, so have the standard of living and purchasing power of the middle class.
The U.S. Department of Labor reports that wages of union members are, on average, 27 percent higher than those of workers that do not have union representation. Ninety-two percent of union workers have job-related health coverage, while only 68 percent of non-union workers do; and 73 percent of union workers have a guaranteed, defined pensions, compared to 16 percent of non-union workers.
But joining a union isn't as easy — or as accepted — as it once was. The current management of the National Labor Relations Board tends to favor owners, said Hagins, and employers generally tend to discourage unionization, often by threatening or intimidating workers who want to organize.
"I think that there is a lot of fear amongst workers about joining unions, and it's exacerbated by the behavior of management," she said. "I think that when managers call workers into their offices to have a one-on-one conversation about why unions are bad, workers obviously fear for their jobs."
Hagins said that workers who are interested in organizing should do their homework — find out which union represents their industry, learn about other efforts to organize in their industry and, above all, talk to their co-workers and find out where they stand.
Despite the current low membership, Hagins said developments like the formation of the Change to Win federation have lent a sense of optimism to the labor movement.
"(Organizing) is definitely something that the American worker sees as important and wants to do," she said, "but we have to give them the opportunity in a fair and neutral manner to make that decision.
"It can be a long road, but when workers come together and make a decision about the way that they want to do their work, and have a voice on the job, it's a victory for everyone."