AFSCME-represented workers at Volunteers of America Oregon (VOA) have reached a tentative agreement after 18 months of contentious negotiations that sparked multiple protests from workers and their union, including a May 14 sit-in that resulted in multiple arrests.
VOA is focused on helping clients to recover from substance abuse and addiction. The 70-person bargaining unit is made up mostly of counselors at two facilities in Portland. Workers began organizing with Oregon AFSCME in 2016 due to low wages, high turnover and because they wanted a stronger voice in client-care decisions. Workers voted 46-3 in favor of joining together under Oregon AFSCME.
Bargaining began in January 2017 and was almost immediately hostile. VOA gave out raises and an extra vacation day to nonunion employees and hired a union-busting firm to negotiate the contract. VOA refused to sign any contract with a “union security” clause, meaning that workers would not have to be part of the union. Workers held rallies last December and April, followed by the May 14 sit-in. The sit-in marked a turning point in the negotiations and showed VOA management that workers will not back down.
Another protest scheduled for June 18 was canceled after VOA relented on its objections to a union security clause and signed the tentative agreement. Workers are expected to vote on the agreement in the next couple of weeks.
This is a big victory for workers at VOA and in the behavioral health industry. The industry relies on high-skilled, low-wage workers to do lifesaving front-line work, while administrators of the mostly nonprofit service providers often make six-figure salaries.
The VOA contract win is a signal to the industry that workers will no longer allow themselves to be exploited and that there is a strong community ready to stand with them in support.
“We are proud and fought really hard to get this agreement. We were able to secure wage increases and system improvements through this process, and we have a contract that gives us a path to raises each of the next three years, along with a ‘just cause’ clause and numerous clarifications about the work we do,” said Alex Rice, a member of the Oregon AFSCME bargaining team. “More than anything, it really showed us that by sticking together and building community support we can fight back and make positive change.”