Portland’s New Unions Make Racial Justice a Top Priority in Contract Negotiations

Erin Alvarez, union organizer at Planned Parenthood, in Portland on Thursday. His is one of a handful of newly organized unions at Portland nonprofits that have pushed for racial justice and fairness in contracts, moving beyond traditional labor issues such as wages. , benefits and working conditions. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

A new generation of unions in Portland are tackling racism and discrimination in the workplace through collective bargaining campaigns that go beyond strictly economic issues.

Progressive young workers say they want enforceable contracts that reflect their employers’ commitments to diversity, racial justice and equity.

“Workers are really frustrated that management would, in theory, agree with the concepts, but they should also really push for the change to happen in the language of the contract,” said Angela MacWhinnie, director of the organization in Maine. Service Employees Association, which represents more than 13,000 nonprofit, government, and educational workers in Maine.

Unionized workers at Preble Street Resource Center, Planned Parenthood Northern New England and the ACLU of Maine have placed a strong emphasis on diversity, equity and inclusion during recent contract negotiations. In some cases, what are often seen as social issues have been as high a priority for unions as improving wages, benefits and working conditions, traditional pillars of organized labor campaigns.

At the Preble Street social services agency, the fight against fairness and non-discrimination was the second priority, just behind wages, for 150 unionized workers. The union will not accept the agency’s substantial compensation offer until it addresses its diversity concerns, organizer Frankie St. Amand said.

“When it came to our racial equity proposals, people weren’t ready to step back, they weren’t ready to give up on any of them,” she said. The Preble Street union is three years old and ratified its second contract in April.


Discrimination is a reality for people of color who do the agency’s work with homeless clients or those with mental health and addiction issues, St. Amand said. But until the last contract, workers did not know if reported incidents were being handled by management.

“It’s possible that some action was taken, such as education or approaching a conversation with the customer,” St. Amand said. “It’s possible that nothing will ever happen.”

According to the wording of its new contract, the agency must respond quickly when a worker reports having been the victim of violence or hate speech at work.

The Preble Street contract also includes a revolutionary bilingual pay differential for employees who use a second language on the job. It guarantees union participation on all racial equity committees in the organization and encourages management to emphasize diversity and equity in its hiring policies.

In a statement, Preble Street said he was committed to racial equity and inclusion, but knew he had a lot of work to do.

“It will be hard work and we will make mistakes along the way,” said general manager Mark Swann. “But this agency is invested in the systemic change it will take to ensure a more equitable and inclusive future.”

Diversity and equity were rallying cries for workers ahead of a union vote at Planned Parenthood Northern New England in 2020.

“When we first started organizing, we tried to center all of our proposals around trying to erode the way we allow white supremacy, bias and bias into the workings of work,” said the shop steward and member. of the Erin Alvarez bargaining committee.

Despite the reproductive health agency’s efforts to highlight its work against racism and discrimination, unionized workers believed the workforce and its leadership remained too heavily white.

“Our organization tries to talk about issues of race, racism and white supremacy, but our employees who are not white feel no benefit,” Alvarez said.

The agency’s vice president for public affairs, Nicole Clegg, said the organization had done a lot to promote diversity, but it could do more. When negotiating her first collective agreement, management wanted to hear from workers what their priorities were, she said.

“In terms of diversity, equity and inclusion, we didn’t disagree with the prioritization of that,” Clegg said. Any issue raised by the union “is important to staff – it is also important to management. There was a lot of agreement. »

Pushing for better pay would address the agency’s lack of internal diversity and high turnover of its nonwhite workers, she said. The union’s first contract raised wages for the lowest-paying positions by $2 an hour, helping to make those jobs more viable for those who don’t have the privilege and supporting their white colleagues, Alvarez said. .

The contract, ratified late last year, guaranteed a pay differential for black, indigenous and other non-white workers involved in workplace equity and inclusion; union participation in agency diversity committees; a floating holiday for workers who do not celebrate Christian holidays and rules to ensure fair promotions and new hires.

“If the people who stay here the longest aren’t exclusively white people, I’d say, ‘Hey, I think that made a difference,'” Alvarez said.


For workers at the Maine ACLU, economic issues were intimately tied to fairness. When the union was formed two years ago, its main objective was to raise the wages of the lowest paid members. These workers happened to be women of color.

“People felt like they weren’t paid enough. They were struggling to pay the rent and feed the children as they had other jobs,” said Michael Kebede, a member of the bargaining committee. “We felt that the organization’s pay scale was at odds with its values.”

After a year of tough negotiations, the union won a $60,000 minimum wage, better benefits, a work-from-home policy and other workplace changes. Kebede said it was harder than expected to convince Maine’s ACLU leadership of the link between living wages and equity.

When you get your paycheck, it determines what neighborhood you live in, where you send your kids to school, what you can afford, he said. “It’s not this abstract, separate question. It is at the heart of racial and gender justice – getting that point across has been difficult.

ACLU of Maine President Jodi Nofsinger agreed that negotiating the first contract was difficult, but said the end result of workers’ efforts will be a stronger advocate for these issues.

“Ultimately, we understood that their ideas and vision was something that would make us a better organization and was in line with our values ​​and principles,” Nofsinger said.

The commitment to fight racism, discrimination and prejudice in the workplace adopted by the three Portland unions is in part a reflection of member demographics and ideologies. The new bargaining units were formed in workplaces that attract people motivated by a sense of social justice during a time of intense national debate over race.

Generally, unions contribute to racial and gender equity by reducing pay gaps, fighting workplace abuse and promoting solidarity, said Matt Schlobohm, executive director of the Maine AFL- CIO.

Larger and more established industrial and public unions do human rights work, but sometimes don’t define it as explicitly as the new bargaining units, Schlobohm said. Unions have a patchy history with racism, sometimes working for racial justice and others as perpetrators of discrimination, he said.

With relatively low levels of union power and membership, unions have incorporated social issues facing local communities and workplaces into organizing and contracting campaigns.

“There is a growing movement called negotiation for the common good. It is a recognition that, in part because of declining union power, they cannot win alone,” Schlobohm said. “We need to articulate and formulate a set of bargaining demands that go beyond traditional wages, hours and working conditions that are directly tied to the community.”

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