Kathryn Alsworth-Communications Editor
Submitted for your approval, the commissions form of government utilized by the City of Portland. Some say that it does not work in the diversity of a 21st century environment. This form of City government dates back to 1913 when Portland voters approved a system that gives the administrative and legislative powers to the mayor and four council members.
Since that time most other cities in the US have adapted some form of district representation but Portlanders have not shown any interest in changing the system. Proposed changes to the commissions form have been defeated eight times at the polls.
Critics of the current system say that whole neighborhoods lack any representation while the power is concentrated in the central city. But the latest proposal would have increased the mayoral power at the expense of the other council members. Neighborhoods could have their very own district representative but council members would end up being minor advisors to our own version of the Royal Mayor.
Our commissions system with all its chiefs can sometimes result in a lack of central leadership. There are times when the council appears to have trouble gaining control over the operations of the City. This is especially obvious during Union contract negotiations. This is when the Bureau of Human Resources steps into its role as chief obstructionist.
Months are spent with little progress while the City cancels bargaining sessions and refuses to engage in any sort of compromise. The management bargaining team categorically refuses to discuss anything that is not to their liking. This slows down the process and is unnecessarily confrontational and inefficient. Last year bargaining dragged on for more than a year while the City engaged in a variety of delaying tactics.
Meanwhile the Council goes on its merry way, seemingly oblivious of any problem. When union members rejected the tentative agreement last spring and voted for a strike authorization, council members seemed to be baffled by that sequence of events.
Management routinely ignores contract language, which forces the union to file grievances and engage in costly arbitration. The operatives at Human Resources
have become active agents in an effort to block organizing efforts. Union members are not valued and management capitalizes on our insecurities.
The problem is that the City Council can’t or won’t deal with middle management’s crusade to destroy the effectiveness of the union. The Council, which inhabits a land of both shadow and substance, cannot gain control and does not appear to know what to do. They traditionally depend on management to handle employee issues.
Middle management is not interested in any sort of fairness in their behavior toward unionized employees. To them the contract is just a bothersome annoyance. They know that politicians come and go but they are entrenched and can behave, as they like, without any fear of accountability. Management know how to makes good use of access to Council members in order to push the their agenda.
Somewhere between the pit of our fears and the summit of our knowledge we find ourselves begging for the favor of the politicians and often it seems as though they only view us as a source of money.
However this door cannot be unlocked with the key of imagination. We must help the Council if they agree to help us and we should start by holding them accountable. We need to point out the signpost ahead. Management’s anti-union agenda is not good for the City or its employees. Union representatives need access to Council members in order to inform the Council of what is really happening in City operations.
When dealing with the council it is important to prioritize and decide what we want from them or they will stick with easy fixes and avoid the hard decisions. It should be emphasized that the operations of the City depend on the efforts of unionized employees and not the non-productive overstaffed highly paid members of middle management.
Consider our alternatives. The Bureau of Human Resources have an anti-union agenda and are actively using their resources against the humans that happen to be the City’s unionized employees.
It is time to look to the Council to provide some sort of balance and rein in middle management’s anti union activities. The Council needs to understand that middle management has manipulated them.
Our elected representatives are more likely to be responsive to public pressure. Oregon ranks high nationally in union membership, in 2010 it ranked 10th among the 50 states. We can be a formidable force if we use our influence at the ballot box.