Public-sector Metro workers call out systemic racism and demand employees of color be treated fairly
To confront what it describes as unjust labor practices and the inequitable history of the Oregon Convention Center, the union representing Metro regional government’s public sector workers — including those who work at the center — hosted a demonstration outside the building June 18.
The rally came in the wake of mass layoffs at Metro in March and in the midst of a nationwide Black Lives Matter uprising. Leadership at the union, AFSCME Local 3580, publicly acknowledged Metro’s role in the displacement of Black Portlanders when the Oregon Convention Center was constructed.
“This very lot we are standing on, laid the homes of countless descendants of ‘freed’ slaves who were redlined into these neighborhoods and only allowed in this state for one reason. To work for and serve a new economy that benefited white settlers in this region,” Rob Nathan, vice president of the local union, said in a statement he read aloud at the rally.
Union President Elizabeth Goetzinger said the rally last week was the first to confront historic racism and will be followed with other organized efforts to educate union membership on racism.
“There had been several times, even as recent as this February, where we’d planned a member action and gotten a signal from management (at Metro) or an email from management that they were continuing to work on things and we didn’t want to disrupt the collaborative space,” Goetzinger said. “I will not let that happen again.”
The union went from nearly 500 members to around 350 in March, when Metro laid off 40% of its staff as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
“It is all too well documented, too many stories heard by our union stewards, the stories of workers at this site that day after day felt disposable. And, sadly, most of these workers, our brothers and sisters have been laid off.”
Many of the losses for AFSCME 3580 were felt by venue staff, including those at the Oregon Convention Center, Oregon Zoo, Portland Expo Center and Portland’5 Centers for the Arts.
And Nathan and Goetzinger said the voices of staff members at the convention center, particularly Black voices, have been unheard by the agency for some time.
“It is all too well documented, too many stories heard by our union stewards, the stories of workers at this site that day after day felt disposable,” Nathan said during the rally. “And, sadly, most of these workers, our brothers and sisters have been laid off.”
Metro was unable to provide concrete data surrounding the demographic makeup of those laid off, but Goetzinger suggested that in her union, people of color were heavily impacted.
“The highest representation I had of Black and brown members were at these venues, and they’re the ones who got laid off,” she said. “From our perspective, it did have an equity impact for our local.”
Goetzinger said just a handful of union members maintained their employment at the Oregon Convention Center, which had a 15% Black workforce in 2019. Like many agencies and employers in the country, she said, anecdotal evidence suggests Black and brown employees were historically given more entry-level, lower-paying jobs at the venues.
The conversation surrounding Black employment at and around the Oregon Convention Center is not new, but as AFSCME Local 3580 prepares for contract negotiations next year, Nathan said it was important to give union members a reminder.
“If we’re going to renegotiate that contract and prioritize our Black employees, we wanted to make sure our membership remembers why,” Nathan said.
The convention center rests in the Lloyd District, which makes up a portion of Albina, a historically Black area.
In 1960, four out of five Black Portlanders lived within the area, which is a little more than 4 square miles. Many were displaced from the Lower Albina area, where the Lloyd District is situated, in the 1970s due to freeway construction and urban renewal, as detailed in Portland State University professor Karen J. Gibson’s research paper “Bleeding Albina.”
Disinvestment in the Albina neighborhoods, Gibson wrote in 2007, paved the way for increased crime and the crack epidemic of the 1980s.
As plans for the convention center came to life in 1989, the Portland Development Commission (today called Prosper Portland) passed an urban renewal plan for the area to improve public facilities and attract private investment, which stated that the neighborhood was “blighted” in part due to high police activity in the area.
“I grew up in Northeast Portland,” Bishop Archie Hopkins Jr. said at the union rally last week. “But Northeast Portland doesn’t look the same way. Our churches are here, our businesses are here, but our people have been displaced to Southeast Portland.”
The Black population in the Lloyd District went from 54% in 1960 to 20% in 2000, a decade after the convention center was established, census tract data shows.
In 1989, the area was the site of protests organized by the Coalition of Black Men. The Portland coalition was fighting for better Black job representation within construction projects for the center. Only $190,000 in contracts went to minority- or woman-owned companies during construction out of millions of dollars poured into the project, according to a 2015 report published by Metro.
“The convention center is being built at our back door,” said Harold Williams, then co-chairman of the Coalition of Black Men. “A stronger representation of African Americans should be visible and active in the development of the project, in the building of it and after it is built.”
Partly at the urging of the coalition and ultimately as a stipulation for getting access to necessary state lottery dollars for the project, Metro implemented the First Opportunity zone to recruit and hire convention center staff from historically poor communities near the site of the center, which encompasses much of the Albina area.
The zone still exists today and now includes hiring opportunities at the Portland Expo Center and Portland’5 Centers for the Arts. Between 1990 and 2010, Black populations in the zone fell by 36%, and in 2016, the boundary for the zone was expanded.
The following year, Metro awarded its biggest-ever minority business contract to Colas Construction, a Black-owned company, for renovations at the Oregon Convention Center.
“Nearly 30 years ago, the Oregon Convention Center opened with the promise of increased access to jobs for members of the historically black North Portland community,” Metro said in a 2017 blog post on its website. “Decades later, part of that promise is finally being fulfilled.”
Heather Back, the communications and policy development program manager for Metro venues, said the relationship with Colas Construction was instrumental in diversifying project contractor firms on the project, with minorities clocking 35% of the hours worked during the renovation.
“Colas Construction was an outstanding partner throughout the entire renovation process,” she said.
Now, Metro is in the initial stages of considering how racial equity might be more included in the eventual reopening of the convention center.
“As the convention center team plans for reopening,” Back said, “the guiding principles include a racial equity lens in our decisions and actions to prevent further harm and maximize benefit for employees and communities of color to dismantle systemic racism.”
Nathan wonders how Metro might make changes to better service the families who were historically displaced by the venue.
“As a union, we caution saying that we know what’s best for the agency,” he said. “But we do know what’s best for our workers, and we want to make sure that our workers who come back to that space are treated with respect and paid what they’re worth, not just what they have the power to negotiate.”