Board approves labor harmony agreement for behavioral health and early learning workforce

October 22, 2021

Brandy Fishback works as a behavioral health case manager for a Multnomah County contractor. In fall of 2020, she and her co-workers first sought union representation at work after concerns emerged about safety issues, oversight, inadequate training, and constant turnover.

In March 2021, a strong majority of Fishback’s co-workers presented their union authorization cards. But after they filed for election, she said, her colleagues began to have second thoughts when an anti-union campaign emerged. 

Stacy Chamberlain is the Executive Director of Oregon AFSCME.

If a labor harmony agreement had been in place beforehand, Fishback said, management would not have been able to try to  to interfere with unionization efforts.  

“It was just a very confusing time,” Fishback told the Board of County Commissioners on Thursday, Oct. 21.. “By the end of the window of voting, we dropped down to 50 percent, and then way lower. ” 

Recognizing concerns from frontline workers, the Board unanimously adopted a labor harmony agreement. The agreement affirms the County’s commitment to having a stable and well-supported workforce and avoiding labor management conflicts and disruption of services.

“Today is an important step forward in Multnomah County’s commitment to pursuing and supporting labor harmony agreements,” Chair Deborah Kafoury said. “We’ll continue to learn from national models, with our partners and through our own experience how to strengthen our efforts to build a stable workforce, ensure consistent high quality services and create thriving communities.”

A labor harmony agreement,  sometimes called a labor peace agreement, is a compact between an employer and organized labor designed to minimize the risk of labor disputes. The agreement — most common in the construction industry — is becoming more frequent in the social services sector. 

Members from American Federation for State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Council 75, along with the Universal Preschool Now coalition, helped craft and review the proposal.

“This has been a long time coming,” said Stacy Chamberlain, the Executive Director for Oregon AFSCME. “Your commitment to labor peace and ensuring workers have a voice at work is not only appreciated by our union, but by all workers who have had to endure fights with their employer to find a voice and unionize in the workplace.”

“Local 88’s support for this labor harmony resolution is more than a vocal act of solidarity,’’ said Raymond De Silva, the vice president of AFSCME Local 88. “It is an acknowledgment that pay, working conditions, and a lack of public investments in these areas impact us all, sometimes directly. “Having workers that are able to organize their workplaces will provide better services and outcomes for all.”

The agreement applies to the County’s Behavioral Health Division (BHD) and Preschool and Early Learning Division (PELD) and eligibility applies to all their solicitations  for services, excluding facilities and information technology. It would also apply to any contracts that are more than $150,000. 

“This is a real opportunity to support the safety, the training, the equity, better pay and benefits for our workforce,” said Commissioner Sharon Meieran. “They are the foundation on which we can build the services, build the community that we need to see and if we’re not supporting our workforce, how can we support our clients and those that we serve?”

COVID-19 underscores County’s urgency after first exploring labor harmony in 2017

Multnomah County first began exploring a labor harmony agreement in 2017 after AFSCME released a report entitled “United We Heal,” advocating for improved conditions for the behavioral health workforce. AFSCME Local 75 requested that the County pursue a “labor peace” agreement applying to the behavioral health workforce.  

A lot has changed since 2017. For frontline workers, the COVID-19 pandemic has only reinforced the need to have strong protections in place. Workers are demanding a living wage, workplace safety, and other protections. 

“If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that what affects one of us affects us all,” Commissioner Susheela Jayapal said. “Low pay and poor working conditions obviously affect the behavioral health and preschool workforce, and they affect the services they can provide and affect the services we at Multnomah County provide to our partners. But when they work together, everyone benefits.”

After the Preschool for All ballot measure passed in 2020, the County committed to expand the scope of its labor harmony initiative to apply to the newly-created Preschool and Early Learning Division.

“We know that preschool teachers are chronically underpaid and have had really high turnover, even before the pandemic, and now with the pandemic turnover has skyrocketed,” said Kate Stubblefield, who advocates for labor rights in the early childhood workforce. “A clear and non-intimidating path to unionization can really help ensure retention in the field, and make early childhood education a sustainable career.” 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson, who championed the Preschool For All Initiative, said labor harmony was going to be a key component from the onset of the program’s implementation. The Preschool For All plan included specific provisions aimed at strengthening the preschool workforce including competitive salaries and a living wage for teaching assistants. A labor harmony agreement is the best tool that the County has to ensure those goals are met, she said. 

“This labor harmony policy is really an affirmation of our County’s values, and it assures that those critical services we provide are not interrupted due to labor disputes,” said Commissioner Vega Pederson. “I believe so sincerely that all workers have the right to organize and to seek union representation along with their coworkers.”

Framework requires contractors to commit to labor harmony and a project labor agreement

The labor harmony agreement has three foundational goals: ensure continuity of services for clients; acknowledge those services require a stable workforce; and adhere to federal, state and local requirements in regards to labor negotiations, including the National Labor Relations Act. 

The agreement includes the following provisions: contractors must certify commitment to labor harmony and a negotiated project labor agreement (PLA); the PLA — between contractors and workers — aims to minimize the disruption of services, work stoppages, and other economic issues interfering with operating services; and if the PLA is not reached within 60 days, mediation and arbitration are required.

Hannah Sloan-Barton, who helped lead a union campaign representing about 200 behavioral health residential and respite workers in 2019, said that the agreement will make an incredible difference for workers employed by County contractors. Her employer ultimately agreed to labor neutrality, meaning that management wouldn’t interfere with labor activities. Fortunately, she said, she and her co-workers were able to maintain positive relationships with their managers. 

“We were able to continue spending all of our working hours on our work instead of having to fight one another,” Sloan-Barton said. “And of course, while this process wasn’t without challenges, it was so much more straightforward and not nearly as painful. And we were able to join the bargaining table and immediately begin working collaboratively with management to create all of those solutions that really served all of us.” 

A remedies provision also applies to the framework. A failure to implement a project labor agreement will first lead to Multnomah County reaching out to the contractor to attempt to meet the minimum requirements. If that fails, a breach of contract may occur, followed by a possible termination of the contract and a recovery of the County’s associated costs.

With approval of the agreement, the County will move forward on developing an administrative framework to implement the policy. The County will also communicate to interested potential contractors and begin training staff to implement the agreement. 

Within 24 months, the County will conduct a review of the initiative with a briefing on the implementation and impacts of the policy. An analysis will also be developed, detailing the legal landscape related to labor harmony and any other tools that may advance the County’s goals of workforce stability and continuity of services.

“I am so proud of the work that is ahead of us, and this labor harmony agreement,” Commissioner Lori Stegmann said. “It’s just really heartening to see the County take such a strong stand to support our workforce, and this labor harmony agreement is a great step in the right direction.”