The chants barely subsided as they pushed their way into the main office. Workers at the Janus Youth Shelter had seen their negotiations almost entirely halted as they saw the prospect of miniscule raises, layoffs, and cuts in services for the homeless at-risk youth they serve. As they moved into the office with a group of almost thirty supporters, the Executive Director, Dennis Marrow, was there waiting for them. He demanded that workers leave as he headed to a back office. Determined, the group refused to let him escape into an in descript room and demanded that he hear the workers demands.
This is just the most recent escalation in a growing conflict between management of the Portland non-profit and the union, which is one of the few Industrial Workers of the World “contract shops.” Here workers themselves, rather than paid staff members, do all of the union functions, from the original organizing drive to the negotiations over new contracts. Their shop is one of several Janus shops, with some also organized with the IWW and then some with AFSCME, all of which are seeing wage stagnation and possible staffing cuts. This is not a new story for care workers of most stripes, where shelters, group homes, and skilled care facilities under the non-profit or semi-public sector banner are seeing the institutionalization of poverty wages.
“My co-workers and I deal with a lot of challenging, sometimes traumatizing, work,” said Tyler Rizzo, a worker who was addressing Morrow. “On top of the vicarious trauma that we experience, and the specialized set of skills we develop to deal with the escalating conflict, and providing emotional support and stability for these homeless youth, we have to worry about keeping ourselves out of poverty with these $10.25 an hour wages.”
Cuts have been a consistent feature of Janus negotiations the last several years, and in 2011 after Harry’s Mother and the Street Light Youth Shelter both were denied promised raises. This came directly after an attempt by Janus to force legal arbitration for any fired worker intending appeal, which is financially impossible for a volunteer-run union like the IWW.
Much of this comes as Janus claims that they are failing to get money they need from the state to meet wage needs.
“Where was the union when Multnomah County increased minimum wage for its employees to $15 an hour, and I was at the table asking what are they going to do for contract workers,” said Morrow when challenged on the low wages. “I didn’t see the union there.” In response to this several organizers pointed out that Morrow currently receives a six-figure salary for his position as Executive Director, a wage that workers claim is far beyond the norm for positions such as his.
“Dennis, how much will you sacrifice to pull your workers out of poverty?” asked JC Steiner, organizer with the IWW. “You have made over a hundred thousand dollars for over a decade. How do you justify that? How do you look people in the eye when they are nearly homeless working for you?”
After the picket began, a worker-committee showed up for regular negotiations. They have one more wage session to negotiate, which will be set for late September. This was the first major action in support of the Janus workers, organized jointly by groups such as the Portland Solidarity Network, Jobs With Justice, $15Now, and the Black Rose Federation. As negotiations move forward the workers are committing to rely on open organizing, both inside and outside of the workplace, as a way to put pressure on Janus to raise the wages to a standard that can better meet with Portland’s rising living costs.