Local 189 celebrated a big victory during Oregon's May primary election when a ballot measure that would have moved the Portland Water Bureau (PWB) out from the city's umbrella and under the auspices of a shaky-at-best new water district was soundly defeated by a 2.5-to-1 margin.
But it didn't "just happen." The election results were the culmination of efforts by the local union to protect its members and their jobs, the result of a coordinated campaign that involved a wide variety of community partners.
For years, says Local 189 Vice President Rob Martineau, the PWB has operated under an economic model that features relatively low base rates and consumption rates that increase as usage increases. It's a model that's both fair to average users and promotes conservation.
It is not, however, a model that sits well with large corporate water consumers. "They" a microchip manufacturer, a local bottling company and such were the primary funders of what became Ballot Measure 26-156, which would have peeled off the PWB into a so-called utility district overseen by a seven-member board. Not coincidentally, to be eligible for election on the board, you couldn't be involved with the current PWB or the City of Portland in virtually any way. While the new district wouldn't have technically been "private," Martineau says the built-in restrictions on who could and couldn't sit on the board would have essentially made it a private enterprise.
Politics makes for strange bedfellows, and the corporations found an odd partner match in some community groups opposed to the federal mandate that the city must eventually cover the PWB reservoirs, a longstanding battle between the city and Uncle Sam.
"So the chief petitioners both had vested interests," says Martineau. "The corporations, looking to save money long-term, supplied the financing. The reservoir people, who basically thought they'd form the new district and thumb their nose at the federal government, provided the energy. Even so, it took $150,000 in paid signature gatherers for them to barely qualify the measure for the ballot."
Local 189 President Mark Gipson notes the signature gatherers approached people with a simple, attractive but for most people, erroneous message: "Do you want to save on your water bill? Sign here.
"In reality, the new venture would have raised base rates and lowered consumption rates, costing the average citizen more money."
Gipson also notes opponents claimed the PWB had employees operating outside of the "core mission" of the agency. Translated, that meant opposition to the PWB's "green infrastructure" program.
"Not everything we do is with sewer pipes any more," explains Martineau, a Water Operations Mechanic and crew leader at the Water Bureau. "We do 'gray infrastructure,' which is your traditional pipes and storm drains, but we also work with environmental groups on 'green infrastructure' bio-swales, tree plantings, programs and projects that are both good for the environment and lower the city's investment costs. But the measure supporters tried to say those kind of jobs weren't really part of the Bureau's mission."
Attacking the "green" programs, however, turned out to be a costly mistake by measure supporters. Led by the Audubon Society, a number of environmental groups quickly joined the coalition against Measure 26-156, as did other groups such as the League of Women Voters.
Martineau, who is also the Local 189 Political Action Chair, reached out to other Portland-area AFSCME local unions and other labor unions, unifying labor opposition to the measure. Council 75 Strategic Alliances Coordinator Khanh Le worked to bring about other community support.
"This was a natural bridge to environmental partners in particular," says Le. "We saw potential job loss; they saw potential environmental harm. We ended up in a win-win situation, and it was a good example of sticking together for a six-to-seven month campaign and seeing it through to the end."
Time, energy and money were the keys to victory. Local 189 members canvassed voters. They put out hundreds of yard signs against the measure. They worked the phone banks. They packed neighborhood meetings about the subject. And they spent money both Council 75 money and local money.
"The Council really came through for us on money," says Gipson. "They pledged $40,000, then came through with an additional $20,000 at the end. Unfortunately, it's a reality that you need to spend some money on a campaign of this sort."
"We had spent $10,000 of our own money, and we decided to pony up for another $10,000," he said. "That money was directly responsible for TV ads airing the last weekend before the election, which was key as a lot of late ballots came in. But it was great to see those TV commercials on Saturday and Sunday and know they were there because of our local."
Gipson and Martineau both noted that the roughly 800 Local 189 members who aren't Water Bureau employees wholeheartedly supported the local's actions and expenditures.
"There were no 'turf wars' internally," said Gipson, who also works at the PWB as a water meter technician. "Everybody was on the same page."
Gipson says he sensed a shift in voters' attitude toward the measure the last weekend of canvassing, but understood "nothing was concrete."
But voter attitudes were in fact changing. Portland residents also came to see how stacked the new water board would be. The language was exclusionary so as to keep anyone with any connection to the City of Portland, the PWB, any budget committee or citizen review board and so on from being eligible to run.
"Basically, if you had any knowledge or experience with the city and/or the Water Bureau, you were ineligible to run for the new board," said Martineau. "Personally, for example, I would have to retire and then sit out six years before I could run. The Portland sewer system has a net worth of $12 billion; the water system, $8 billion. So you're talking about an entity of $20 billion that was to be operated specifically by people with no know-how of how to do so. In the end, I think voters understood that."
Neither Gipson nor Martineau expected the final margin to be as large as it was.
"It's great, though, because a large margin makes it more unlikely it'll come up again," said Gipson. "I don't think the corporate funders will want to do that again. The other group might have the energy [to try again], but they don't have any money. So hopefully, this victory will have a chilling effect on any future, similar ideas."