A trio of anti-union county commissioners in Southwestern Oregon
broke state law last year when they fired 125 workers to retaliate
against them for going on strike. That’s what the workers’
union, Oregon AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal
Employees) Council 75, charged in a legal complaint against Josephine
And on Oct. 30, 2007, the state board that judges public employee
union disputes agreed with the union, ruling that the county’s
outsourcing of mental health services was an “egregious”
violation of Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining
Act. The Oregon Employment Relations Board (ERB) ordered Josephine
County to reinstate the workers and pay damages, including reimbursement
for any wages and benefits they lost, plus 9 percent interest.
AFSCME hailed the ruling as a major victory, saying it chastens
a lawless county board and could deter other public employers from
retaliating against workers for union activity.
“It sends a very strong message to other public employers
not to do this,” said AFSCME Field Services Director Rick
Henson, “because we will pursue them to the end and prevail.”
The fight started in late 2005 when Josephine County demanded significant
benefit cuts from its 325 AFSCME-represented employees. The cuts
were pushed by the three-member Board of County Commissioners —
full-time elected officials who serve as the county’s top
Workers said “no” to the cuts, and struck for four days
in January 2006. Josephine County, population 78,000, is politically
conservative and predominantly Republican, but strikers surprised
the commissioners, winning tremendous community sympathy. County
managers, who also had their benefits cut, filed suit against the
county. At a strike rally, the sitting sheriff called the commissioners
“bullies and thugs.” The Grants Pass Daily Courier called
on the commissioners to settle.
They did, coming to terms with the union under intense public pressure.
But soon after that, the three commissioners — Dwight Ellis,
Jim Raffenburg and Jim Riddle — struck back, voting to outsource
all jobs in the county’s most pro-union department.
The county mental health department was the workplace of Local 3694
President Daniel Burdis, plus three of the five bargaining committee
members, and the activity chair. During the strike, 80 percent of
workers in the mental health department took part, compared to 60
percent in the juvenile department and 40 percent in the public
One month after the strike, the commissioners voted 3-0 to contract
out every component of the mental health department, including alcohol
and drug counseling, services for developmentally-disabled adults,
and juvenile early intervention in the schools. The state and a
local education service district took over some of the work. Non-profit
organizations contracted for the rest, with one group, Options for
Southern Oregon, hiring 70 of the 125 county workers.
The announcement that accompanied the outsourcing vote made vague
mention of Josephine County’s uncertain financial future,
blaming the expected loss of federal timber subsidies.
“When you have a climate of outsourcing, downsizing and layoffs,”
said attorney Barbara Diamond, “no one will question the motives
of employers that contract out, because it’s assumed the motive
is to save money.”
But Diamond, working with local AFSCME members, was able to show
ERB that money wasn’t the motive this time.
The mental health programs were supported almost entirely by state
and federal grants, and those grants helped cover county overhead.
So not only did the outsourcing not save money, it actually cost
the county $469,000 a year. That’s why the idea of outsourcing
had been rejected twice before in the previous decade. This time,
there was no advance study or analysis, no public hearings where
clients, families or advocates could testify, no meetings for employees
to weigh in. Commissioners made the decision entirely on their own,
one month after a strike that had made them look bad.
ERB members concluded the county’s “uncertain financial
future” was just a pretext, and a flimsy one. The real motive
was admitted on two separate occasions when county higher-ups told
union leaders privately that the outsourcing wouldn’t have
happened except for the strike. Those “smoking gun”
admissions were just the clincher in the union’s case that
the outsourcing was retaliation.
ERB has given the county 30 days to negotiate a settlement with
AFSCME. Otherwise, all its orders will apply. In addition to reinstatement
and back pay, ERB ordered the county to pay to AFSCME the dues that
would have been withheld — about $75,000 over the 18-month
period — plus a $1,000 civil penalty — the maximum the
law allows. A separate legal proceeding seeks to have the county
pay the union’s attorney costs in the case, which could be
up to $30,000.
As of press time, the outsourced workers hadn’t met, but Burdis,
who was hired as a union staff rep after his job was outsourced,
thinks few will want to come back to the county. They make the same
amount of money at their new employers, and though they don’t
have the workplace rights they had in the unionized environment
of the county, the non-profit managers treat them better, he said.
Plus, the county prefers not to reinstate them, likely because it
could make them vulnerable to lawsuits by the non-profits they contracted
with, Burdis said. So the two sides expect to negotiate.
“We’re members of the community,” Burdis said.
“We care about the community. We’re not trying to bankrupt
the county. If we can negotiate a settlement that’s better
for all concerned, we’ll do that.”