Oregonian to labor unions: We still hate you
The O supplied some hilarity yesterday with an editorial diatribe about what it considers the sorry state of affairs at the Portland Development Commission. According to the editorial, the fact that employees of the PDC are on the verge of unionizing is a sure sign that the glory days of the urban renewal agency are over, and that it's heading toward the ignominious fate of being just another so-so city bureau.
Several aspects of the newspaper's position are classic. First and foremost, the editors made no effort to conceal their animosity toward organized labor -- a point that was not lost on the local blogosphere's most visible ex-union leaders. Here's the kind of stuff the O came on with:
At first glance, an effort to unionize the city's urban renewal agency looks like yet another blow to a proud city institution, one that is already reeling.Well, there you have it. Formation of a workers' union is a "self-inflicted blow" that "could have been headed off with more astute management." It's something that the mayor and the head of the PDC should try to put a stop to immediately! (No mention of the fact that the law regulates what management can do in this situation -- apparently, that's not worthy of anyone's attention.)
Some other blows have been external. Sadly, this new one appears self-inflicted. The drive to unionize the PDC could have been headed off with more astute management. Some employees report they've been poorly treated, and their complaints have been ignored. Even so, the unionizing effort hands ammunition to external critics, eager to see the PDC's independence compromised.
Unbelievable. Blogging Amanda strongly disagreed:
Yes, a union for PDC! Organizing so that employees who act in the best interests of the public are protected from the whims and politics of upper management. Giving workers job security they currently lack - they don't even get the Civil Service protections that Mayor Potter is proposing to gut in the ballot measure referred to the May ballot. Providing front-line staff a structure and support to give them a voice in the direction of an agency which many Portlanders believe should turn its major focus to financing projects that benefit small businesses and create new home ownership opportunities for current renters in neighborhoods outside the Central City.The Fireman from the Flats wasn't quite so upbeat:
It is truly unfortunate that the editorial board of the Oregonian ignores the excellent work being done by public servants -- such as the men and women that work at the Bureau of Development Services -- in an attempt to make an argument that to unionize the PDC workforce will lead, in their words, “to make the agency (PDC) slower, blander and more bureaucratic, more like every other bureau at City Hall."The good fireman also noted that he and Opie (the other big union man on the City Council) will be introducing a formal resolution tomorrow supporting the union effort. Now, them's fightin' words.
I know that the future of the PDC rests in the good hands of the front line workers that each day make the PDC function, good people I have the privilege of working with often. I also know that their collective voice is not being heard now… a mistake made by the PDC management that will soon be corrected.
Although the O's aspersions on unions are nasty indeed, they are not surprising at all. The life story of that newspaper is full of union-busting -- indeed, if I've got my history right, the O systematically broke all of its own unions during a tumultuous period in the the late 1950s and early 1960s. Much more recently, the O offered its workers premium pay if they would report for duty to serve as "replacement workers" (known to the unions as "scabs") at a struck newspaper in Ohio.
The O's owners these many decades, the Newhouse family, absolutely despise unions -- almost as much as they hate competition. Nonunion monopoly daily newspapers are their pot of gold (or at least they were, until the internet came along and their circulation took a turn for the worse). And as a former member of the Newspaper Guild at a Newhouse newspaper, I can tell you firsthand that the enmity is usually mutual.
O.k., so much for the labor angle. The other funny aspect to yesterday's editorial was the O's whining that a once-proud agency was suddenly about to become mediocre -- apparently, like the rest of city government:
Unionizing the PDC might not be fatal, but it won't enhance the agency's effectiveness. It's likely to make the agency slower, blander and more bureaucratic, more like every other bureau at City Hall. And that's exactly what the Portland Development Commission was never supposed to be.Such drama. Don't scratch your heads too hard, folks. It's entirely clear what happened to the PDC, and you of the big Cipher sat there and watched it happen -- indeed, you encouraged it. Former Mayor Vera Katz, who worshiped the ground that Oregon's one-time political boss, Neil Goldschmidt, walked on, turned the PDC over to Neil's lieutenants. In particular, she appointed Matt Hennessee as board chair and Don Mazziotti as executive director. Between the two of them, they made Bush and Cheney look like smart, nice guys. They dissed the staff and just about every neighborhood in the city as they arrogantly ladled out pork to Goldschmidt's paying clients.
To the extent that the PDC turns into a clone of every other city bureau, Portland in the long run turns into a clone of other cities. We don't know if it's too late to change employees' minds and avert the union drive. But whatever happens now, it's up to Potter and Warner to restore the agency's morale -- and moxie.
Or else, Portlanders will be scratching their heads some day and asking: Whatever happened to that urban renewal agency we once had, the one that was so distinctive, and did so much for our city. Remember?
The list of the bonehead moves that the PDC made during that timeframe is too long for this post, but a couple of highlights will suffice. They built the SoWhat district and the aerial tram [rim shot]. They tried to pull a too-obvious fast one on the Burnside Bridgehead project before everyone saw through it and the new mayor had to blow the whistle on it. They lost the respect of every thinking person who watched them, except the editorial board of the O, who seemed to think that things were just "snazzy." When Mazziotti and crew tried to ram a Burnside Bridge Home Depot down everyone's throat, the O was supportive: "[A] properly designed Home Depot store would surely make an acceptable Central Eastside neighbor." Just before The Don left the PDC, the O opined:
Mazziotti was up to the task. In his four years at the helm, the agency's impact was overwhelmingly good, and Mazziotti will deserve credit, when he departs, for leaving Portland measurably better off than when he began. In concert with former Mayor Vera Katz and some of the most creative people in Portland's private-sector development community, Mazziotti helped guide projects that will improve the city well into the future. We mention the Pearl District, South Waterfront and Interstate Light Rail as visible examples. But PDC produced new moderate-income housing and worked successfully to build the city's job base and solve problems for businesses, too... [M]ainly, the head of PDC has to be a hard-nosed realist who will help direct the community's development efforts to the places where it will actually do good, not just make everyone feel good.Well, now the place is a bit of a wreck, and the Potter administration is left in the unenviable position of trying to pick up the pieces. The unionization effort is actually a rare sign of life almost two years after our hicktown summer stock run of The Sopranos came to a close. If a union is coming, bring it on. If tighter City Council oversight and direction are coming, bring them on, too. The PDC will emerge the better for both developments. The leadership needs to come out of its bunker and see the possibilities in the light of the coming spring.
As for Portland becoming a bland clone of other places, that's a good one coming from one of a chain of lookalike newspapers, whose string of websites, cut from the identical, clunky template, can't get blog comments to work despite, what, four years of trying? (Here's a screenshot from this morning -- check the photo and caption.) It's hard to tell who's in worse shape, the PDC or the O. But workers who want a fair shake in the workplace are the least of Portland's problems.