By editorial board • 

County labor pact proves no impasse defies resolution

When the 211 county workers represented by AFSCME Local 1422 traded desks for picket lines the Friday of Nov. 3, it was only the second local public employee walkout we can readily find record of in our archives.

Fortunately, it was apparently short-lived. The opposing sides reached a tentative deal late Tuesday, subject to ratification by union members and the county board of commissioners.

The sole modern-era predecessor was launched the morning of Thursday, Feb. 8, 1990, by the McMinnville Education Association, representing 207 teachers. The striking teachers returned to the classroom Wednesday, Feb. 21, after coming to agreement on a compromise settlement in feverish bargaining.

The teachers’ contract expired in June of 1989, and they engaged not only in months of direct bargaining sessions over the intervening seven months, but also three rounds of marathon mediation sessions, before finally pulling the trigger on their walkout.

In the runup to that strike, voters denied District 40 any local operating levy funds to supplement a woefully inadequate tax base for four years running. They defeated three levy proposals in a row in 1989 alone, so probably deserve the largest share of the blame for the negotiating standoff.

There are a number of parallels between the two local strikes, but there are also many marked differences. And the passage of 33 years has profoundly altered the political, social and economic landscape.

The local county walkout came against the backdrop of the largest teacher strike in Oregon history, launched two days earlier in Portland. It also came against the national backdrop of a post-pandemic wave of strikes in both the public and private sectors, the headliner being a United Auto Workers strike simultaneously targeting the traditional big three of American automaking for the first time.

Clearly, the COVID lull has produced a lot of pent-up demand in the ranks of organized labor, and those ranks have been swelling in size as a result. To what extent that demand was met will depend on analysis of settlement details, post-ratification.

The county’s criminal justice system is represented by different labor organizations, but members of its main AFSCME unit are responsible for assessment, taxation, parks, elections, planning, surveying and waste treatment, among other functions.

Those “other functions” include public health, social services and veterans’ services, which is where the impact of the strike figured to be felt most immediately and critically. The challenge of maintaining anything approaching normal operation figured to grow exponentially as the stoppage played out.

Back in 1990, the McMinnville School District rounded up a cadre of substitute teachers to keep the system operating in at least a makeshift fashion. However, that’s become increasingly rare and difficult in today’s world; thus neither the county nor Portland school system opted to make any such attempt.

The Oregonian responded to the Nov. 1 teacher strike in Portland by urging — demanding even — a swift return to reason with a compromise settlement. However, it had no meaningful prescription to offer, what with the opposing parties so deeply dug in on positions of self-perceived reality and principle.

Finding ourselves in like straits — counseling compromise with no firm idea what form it might take — we were delighted to learn the parties seemed to have gotten out in front of us and reached consensus on their own.

However, a degree of damage is inevitable when agreement can’t be reached short of a work stoppage. Tensions tend to run high and linger long.

Don’t believe it?

Ask McMinnville old-timers about the bitter fallout ensuing from the teacher strike of 1990. After all, strikes represent the last resort for a reason.

It’s now incumbent on the former combatants to wage peace as ardently as they waged war when the situation seemed to demand it. Let the healing begin.


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