Oregon public-sector unions portray themselves as democratically run for their members. But a recent decision from the Oregon’s Employment Relations Board about a dispute in Bend tells a different story.
Local union leadership believed its members would find a contract change too “confusing,” so they backed it without a vote of the membership. And when a union member filed a complaint, the state fined him.
When somebody else does something like that, it’s antidemocratic. When a union does it, it’s democracy in action?
The state board’s recommended order in Warkentin v. Bend-La Pine School District and the Oregon School Employees Association is that the union did not engage in a unfair labor practice. Look closely at what happened, though. It was not flattering.
The Oregon School Employees Association represents some 20,000 members across the state. A local chapter of the OSEA, Chapter 6, represents some employees who work in the Bend-La Pine schools, including custodians.
The local chapter and the school district reached an agreement in August 2017 on many issues. One thing they failed to resolve was schedules for entry-level custodians. The local union’s leadership and the school district agreed to continue to discuss it. A new collective bargaining agreement was voted on and approved by local union’s membership, without any change in that custodian issue.
In September 2017, the school district brought its proposed change to the local union’s leadership. Existing entry-level custodians would be able to choose. They could work 224 days a year, get a pay raise, and no longer be able to schedule non-work days — or they could keep the framework under the approved contract, working 236 days a year. Future employees wouldn’t get to choose and would get the 224-days-a-year package.
Bradley Warkentin, the local union’s treasurer and a custodian himself, asked if seniority would apply in requests for time off. The district responded that if the union didn’t agree to the change, it would cut jobs.
The local union’s leadership — the executive committee — supported the district’s proposal. It then had a choice: Should it approve this change itself or take it to its membership for a full vote?
Debbie Watkins, the Bend-La Pine School District’s human resources director, showed the union’s leadership numerous prior agreements that had been signed by the union’s chapter president without ratification by members. That’s what president Robin Raiter decided to do.
Why? It is allowed by the union. Raiter also explained that “presenting this to the full membership will be confusing.”
Really? She thinks her union’s members can’t understand the difference between 224 days a year and 236?
Raiter added that if she required a full vote on this issue, union members might have to vote on future such issues, too. Yes, that’s what a democratically run organization does.
And Raiter topped it off with “please know I am firm believer in transparency.” Saying that is like running a red light and then telling the cop that pulls you over that you are firm believer in traffic laws.
Even the state leadership was concerned about the local union’s leadership was doing. Susan Miller, the OSEA’s director of field operations, wrote Raiter: “That is good to hear that the district is not pressuring you. I can only make recommendations on my end, and I’ve done that. I would say however that just because past leaders bypassed membership ratification vote, doesn’t make it the right way to do union work. As I stated over the phone, I believe unions are the thing to a true democracy you can get, or at least they should be. The final decision is of course yours to make.”
Warkentin challenged the way the decision was made and filed an unfair labor practice complaint. He lost. In part he lost because it’s routine for this union to bypass its membership on decisions like these. The state of Oregon also decided Warkentin’s complaint was “frivolously filed” because the state said every argument he asserted is not well grounded in fact or law. He had to pay a civil penalty of $100 to OSEA.
That’s what you get for assuming Oregon’s public sector unions are the closest thing to true democracy.