More than 600 city maintenance and operations workers are on strike Thursday after Portland officials declined to accept the workers’ proposed contract. While Portland leaders have alluded to a “contingency plan” to continue operations in the city, striking workers say that wastewater treatment, parks maintenance, and street clearing will be significantly affected as long as the strike continues.

“The work starts with you,” Portland Jobs with Justice organizer Sarah Kowaleski told workers at a pre-strike rally last weekend, “and [the city’s] bullshit stops Thursday.”

Portland City Laborers (PCL), a subset of Laborers International Union of North America Local 483, has been in contract negotiations with the city since March 2022 and working without an agreed contract since June 2022. The union’s main concern is a lack of competitive wages that keep pace with rapid cost of living increases. The city’s most recent offer included a 5 percent retroactive cost-of-living increase for 2022, 5 percent cost-of-living increase in July 2023, and a guaranteed 1 percent pay increase in July 2023. Portland officials say the average PCL worker currently makes $65,389 per year and would make an average of $76,288 starting in July 2023 under the city’s proposal.

PCL workers are requesting a 7.9 percent cost-of-living increase for 2022—comparable to the US inflation rate—no cap for future cost-of-living increases, and wage adjustments that would keep the city’s pay competitive with private sector work.

In a comment to City Council Wednesday, PCL organizer James O’Laughlen told Portland commissioners that the strike was “entirely avoidable” if the city was responsive to PCL workers’ needs.

“[Striking] is not what our members want,” O’Laughlen said. “They just want to be able to live in the communities they serve, to have safe working conditions, and working hours that can’t be flipped on them in a moment’s notice.”

PCL workers walking to rally in front of City Hall. Isabella Garcia

During a rally in front of City Hall last weekend, hundreds of maintenance and operations workers stressed that their work kept the city running through the most dangerous days of the pandemic and beyond.

Jim Jeffers, a maintenance worker with Portland Bureau of Transportation (PBOT), told the Mercury that a deficit of maintenance workers could lead to “death and destruction.”

“We clear the route to the hospital for the doctors to get to OHSU [during icy weather],” Jeffers said. “Police cars won’t get where they need to go, ambulances won’t get where they need to go.”

While no snow or ice is in the forecast, freezing temperatures are expected to continue as workers are on strike. PBOT and city spokespeople declined to tell the Mercury how the loss of striking maintenance workers would impact street deicing operations, but Mayor Ted Wheeler authorized the city to hire temporary contract workers during the strike.

“The City is moving ahead with contingency plans on personnel coverage and resources for critical operational needs,” city spokesperson Carrie Belding said in a press release Wednesday night confirming the failed mediation. 

The cost of hiring temporary contract workers compared to the cost of approving PCL’s requested contract is unclear. Portland leaders say that the city does not have enough money to approve the contract PCL is requesting.

PCL workers plan to strike until a contract agreement is made with the city.

“The first time you bring a material problem to someone and they say how much they care about you and they understand, you feel heard,” O’Laughlen told city commissioners Wednesday. “The 110th time you do it and they give the same response, you feel insulted. We really need the city to live its stated values and provide our members with a fair contract so they can keep doing essential work that the people of Portland need us to.”