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Tuesday, February 20, 2007

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.

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.

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.)

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."

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.

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.

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.

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 PDC.

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.

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.

Comments (39)

Another high quality "Freditorial" from the Big OH! Where if its in the New York Times today we'll print it tomorrow.
The Nickle

I'm not sure that the "O" is hostile to all unions. They sure "go to the mat" for the teachers unions and that's not difficult to prove.

The "O" is like most other liberals - big time hypocrites - in that they're more than willing to impose union costs and unaccountability on the average person but when it comes to them - No way!
The recent unionization of Powell's Bookstore is a good example. Michael Powell, a big liberal, is happy to impose egregious union policies on the citizens but when it came to unionizing his store he fought it tooth and nail. Another example: The world's second largest retailer Home Depot is non-union and probably will never be a union shop. Guess who owns many thousands of shares of Home Depot stock? The unions!

Great editorial Jack.

Parody of that editorial here: only it's The Oregonian, not the PDC, getting re-unionized!

Good point about federal limitations on employer actions when workers are seeking to organize, although many folks concerned about working people believe the protections aren't strong enough yet. There is a forum tonight, 6:30 p.m. at the AFSCME building at SE 60th/Burnside, on the proposed federal Employee Free Choice Act, which would provide more safeguards for workers trying to form a union.

I have no doubt that many Oregonian editorials are written by the ghost of Harvey Scott (the larger-than-life reactionary who ran the paper back in the 19th Century).

But I have to agree with the O in one regard: a well-managed organization should not have to be unionized to make life better for its employees. It should be smart enough to do so without a union. Stupid and myopic management policies is what brings on unions.

GJ, excellent observation. Has anyone noticed that the most innovative enterprises are nonunion, while the least are union? Has anyone noticed that the fastest growing segment for unions is government employees? One needs to look no further than what unions have done to our state school system or look at the US auto industry.

I would look farther back to how workers in America were treated before unions came along. This idea that good management will somehow take care of the workers is sweet but, that's not how it happened. Workers had to fight to be treated better. Then along came the new anti-worker laws. The change occurred when replacement workers were allowed to keep their jobs, and the union members only got them back if a vacancy occurred. So what's happened? There are hardly any strikes, but our society is rapidly losing its middle class. If the goal was to create a class of super-rich, it has worked, but at a terrible cost. The American economy is currently on track to implode, and crushing unions while the treasury was looted, is a part of the story.

Big O and unionization, brings back fond memories of "The Reporter". Ill-fated it was, but an insight to just how far the Big O will go to stifle a closed union shop.
A close look at PDC's urban renewal theft of private property should bring no surprise to the what antics are bestowed on the Worker Bees.

"what unions have done to..."

Nice, Richard, you lead with a compliment and then proceed to a logical fallacy. Even if you are correct about "the most innovative enterprises," which is debatable, that doesn't show causation, that unions kill innovation. "Stupid and myopic management policies" have many consequences, including employees' feeling the need for representation. And while you can cite particular instances of particular unions that have been power hungry and unnecessarily combative, 1. the origins of such relationships are usually in management and 2. the labor movement has made the world a better place.

The last time I looked, Intel is non-union as is Microsoft, HP and most other companies in the high tech area. Now we look at highly unionized employers and what do you find. A school system that doesn't work, government agencies that are multi-layered and bloated, the US auto industry which is bleeding money. Unions do kill innovation through to process of penalizing those who strive to do better than what the union contract calls for. What do think happens to the longshoreman who unloads ten containers an hour when the contract calls for six? You are right in saying poor management causes unionization.

One more time. Correlation does not prove causation. And even the correlation argument here requires repeating several anti-union articles of faith.

To Richard S,

There are plenty of countries with high unionization rates with high productivity and strong business climtates. Take a look at Finland for example.

American unionism has had a particular history. Our unions are very limited in terms of their scope of negotiation.

As for auto manufacturing. Yes auto unions have been almost as blind to the future as the executives, politicians, voters and consumers. Maybe it's because they watch the same TV commercials as everyone else.

1) ...the labor movement has made the world a better place.

2) Correlation does not prove causation.

3) Hmmmmm.

The labor movement: the folks who brought you the weekend.

And thanks for the wonderfully detailed analysis of the PDC fiasco.

Richard S/ - This is just one example out of the three you cite (Intel, Microsoft and H-P) but Hewlett-Packard employees are, in fact, represented by the Communications Workers Union, as a quick Google will demonstrate.

My guess (and it's only a guess) is that H-P employees are organized and Intel's and Microsoft's are not yet, is because H-P has been around longer and been through more boom-bust cycles.

And, further, it's only a matter of time before Microsoft employees are organized, as well. That's my guess.

It's been pointed out to me that municipal employee union certifications in Oregon are governed by state, not federal, law. I see that indeed, there is a state Employment Relations Board which appears to oversee the process.

...but Hewlett-Packard employees are, in fact, represented by the Communications Workers Union, as a quick Google will demonstrate.

No, they're not. H-P is non-union.

More "facts" from the internet?

I believe the Communications Workers Union is a British union that represents BT (British Telecom). BT entered some kind of strategic business arrangement with HP.

I believe everyone's related to Kevin Bacon - that doesn't make me Kevin Bacon.


I believe I was in agreement with your previous post and merely pointing out the cause of the confusion regarding Internet sites linking HP with a union. As far as the belief that everyone is related to Kevin Bacon, I have yet to examine his genealogical records but I believe you may be right.

Sorry, I'm crazy. Why won't the government help me?

My point was that the inability or calculated refusal to distinguish fact from wish is germane to this whole argument.

I read it on the internets! It must be true!

...in my defense, I did say

1) that it didn't really impact Richard S/'s argument,
2) and that it was a quick google.

And the rest of my comment was clearly my own personal opinion. Just sayin'.

Lousy unions.

somebody please tell the Police and Fire Departments to drop that union nonsense and get to work.

and Toyota--they're making too many union-manufactured cars, it's hurting America.

and those janitorial unions! getting fat off the hard-earned profits of their employers. bums.

just for the record, only about 12% of Americans belong to a union. most of those wouldn't get a living wage if they didn't.

Brian: I'll bet if you told Microsoft's employees it's only a matter of time before they vote in a union, you would be in a straight jacket and thrown out of the building before you ended the sentence. Do you really believe they would give up their current rate of pay, excellent benefits and stock options which have made a fair number of them millionaires so they can be protected from their evil employer?

M$FT now gives stock grants, not options. Much less in quantity (since it is an actual share of stock, not an option), and with much less in capital growth of the shares of stock. So, bottom line, the new M$FT employee who starts work today, will see very little growth (measured in single or double digit growth rate percentage) over the next 10-20 years, versus the M$FT employee who started in 1985 or 1990, who had very high rates of stock price growth rates, and thus turned out millionairs of even secretaries and other lower level employees.

But even though M$FT, Intel and HP are now slow growth, mature companies, I doubt that they will unionize. It does stifle innovation, which is the lifeblood of technology companies, and it attracts the lower life forms of employees, which would mix like oil and water with their current employee base.

"It does stifle innovation, which is the lifeblood of technology companies, and it attracts the lower life forms of employees, which would mix like oil and water with their current employee base."

To clarify, since this statement might be flame bait...

Some employees ask "what can I do for the company?", while other employees ask "what can the company do for me?"

Most successful companies have more of the former type employees. Most union shops are busy cultivating the later type of employees.

Generally, these two types tend to repel each other. Hence Richard's comment about straight jackets.


Can you offer up any evidence on the claim "unions stifle innovation"? That seems like a strange causal link, but one I'd be interested to learn more about.

also--despite having no unions, Intel (which I've worked at) has taken a nose dive and laid off many thousands of workers in the past several years. Professional-level employees are seldom unionized anywhere anyhow.

Unions attract the lower life forms of employees? That is the most obnoxious comment I've read on the blogosphere this week.
You are literally pleading with karma to place you around a campfire, begging for a morsel of bread from your fellow snobs.
And speaking of stifling inovation, how about upgrading the oil and water line?

So long, Harry.

Make that "innovation." I can't spell when I get mad. You know what flashed before my eyes? The image of 300 union firemen going into the World Trade Center. Were they lower life forms?

When I worked at Safeway in 1988 and 1989, I was a member of the AFL-CIO. Didn't have a choice, as membership was mandatory for all.

Before Union dues were deducted, I was paid $3.35 per hour. We lower life forms had no health care whatsoever, though I understand the higher echelons did. At that time Safeway employed a lot of elderly people and, oh, what is the polite term...somewhat "dim" individuals. My duties as "Courtesy Clerk" included such things as cleaning garbage bags full of dead rats out of the gluetraps in the stockrooms, and scrubbing the toilets nightly.

Our shop steward was a close friend and drinking buddy of the manager of the store, who was the son of one of the bigshots from Corporate. This dumb-assed rich kid manager had the mid-boggling gall to give me a long speech about how he, too, had started at the bottom once while I was in the process of cleaning a toilet bowl late one night.

That particular Union didn't do a damn thing for me, ever.

On the other hand, when I started work at the cab company, it was on the verge of bankruptcy. There was a Union then, and full healthcare, etc, for the drivers. Shortly after I was hired, the cab company broke the Union in order to stay solvent, so they said, fired all of the drivers, and then re-hired us as "Contract Laborers." We have to pay for our own health-care, and our taxes are doubled, as we are not "employees." I cannot afford insurance, not after Federal income tax, Social Security income tax, Oregon income tax, Mult. Co business income tax, and Tri-Met business income tax, all at double the normal rate, with virtually no write-offs.

The company is, however, in the black again, though, so at least it exists to employ me. And I'm quite well read about the Labor stuggles of circa 1875-1950, regarding "The Weekend."

You might say I have some pretty mixed feelings about Unions.

Thanks, Jack. Bravo!

Apparently, the more I get wrapped up in nostalgia, the more typos I generate. But still, sitting up late here and thinking about all of my work situations with and without Unions over the years, I do kind of wonder about that fine line where corruption begins.

As Cabbie pointed out the Unions and Management are only as good as the character of the people involved in them. The problems come with the zealots on each side, and yet as cabbie pointed out if it were not for the zealots and the autrocities that put them down at the turn of the last century we would have been a society of haves and havenots instead of a strong middle class buffering the two extremes. The more urbanized the country becomes harder to spot the Potters as characterized by the banker in "Its a Wonderful Life" and the corporate robber baron in "You Can't Take it With You", or the old money tyrants in "The Great Gastby" Books and movies we grew up with but lessons we seem to have forgotten as boomers. I found my grandmothers diaries from 1910 when she told about a rural girlfriend that came home pregnant after working in one of the sweatshop woolen mills, and the Bostonian father claimed the baby sending the back to her family in thier one Appalachian tarpaper shack with no indoor plumbing. Not to mention the fire in New York that spurred formation of the Ladies Garment Workers Union. That said Unions can also as Cabbie pointed out be run poorly, remembering all the scandals and the Hoffa years. But the sad truth is that all the legislation in the world will not change that unless people are educated and engaged in the process on both sides, and act rationally. Today some of the unions have the attitude that anyone who belongs is right and mangement is wrong, and sadly the same is true in management. Everytime they burn eachother irrationally the walls get stronger between colaberative problem solving. I have to go back to writing a report now on a labor dispute, where the biggest challenge is getting people to talk to eachother and figure out how to make things work, and both parties have a cross to bear in why things are not working. Sadly this is probably the norm today and not the exception.

I sure believed in Unions until I worked for a company that became unionized. Like communism it's sounds great in theory but it's a whole different animal in practice.


That's the problem. Both business and unions draw from the same pool of fallible humanity. For anyone to think that those humans self-select according to greed on the business side and altruism on the union side is ridiculous.

When business refuses to acknowledge the rights of workers (union or not) they are wrong and ideally the market will tell them so - this wasn't always the case but is now and it will happen more effectively and faster than ever before.

When unions act as if their wants (not their rights) trump the realities of the marketplace, they are wrong and we can see the results of that miscalculation in the declining union membership in the private sector.

Abuses of the relationship are bound to hurt workers more than business. In most of Europe, the unions understand and acknowledge the dynamics and demands of capitalism and have maintained their membership at a much higher percentage than the US.

In the end, the catch is that business creates jobs - not as a product or an end in and of itself - but as a by-product, if you will, of it's pursuit of profit. Unions, on the other hand, exist as a necessary expense, a parasitic drain on those same profits. The sooner unions in the US accept the nature of this symbiosis, the sooner they'll see membership increase.

I'm not holding my breath.

Business will persist even without unions. However, with the obvious exception of P/E unions, labor unions as we now know them could very easily fade away in this country before the end of this century. Many of unions' original functions have been taken over by governments and what's left of their premise will become superfluous through the vastly faster and more comprehensive spread of information. To try to hold on to a medieval construct with an early-20th-gloss on it will be folly in as this century progresses.

I have spoken.

rr: We have heard and now we can rest.

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