Monday, March 06, 2006

'Bout time

Public union's 'award' leaves a trail of ill will
S. Renee Mitchell
The Oregonian

Four times in the past four years, Multnomah County's employees union has bestowed a Tar and Feather Award on a county manager who did something union leaders didn't like.

No one complained much about the name of the award. But for many black folks, it stirs painful memories of a not-so-long-ago time in America's history when tarring and feathering complemented lynching like jelly does a child's peanut butter sandwich.

Yet, on July 26, the union gave the Tar and Feather Award to a department led by a black man, Lolenzo Poe, who served on the Portland School Board for four years.

The county has a minuscule number of black managers. And Poe's agency, the Department of School and Community Partnerships, is one of the smallest and most ethnically diverse.

"It offended me and some others," Poe says of the award, "but because it was a union issue, I chose not to say anything. I kind of bit my tongue."

But whatever hurt feelings the award created calcified -- especially since an employee survey in 2004 implied that the county is a hostile workplace for people of color. Of the county's 4,288 employees, only 288 -- 6.7 percent -- are black.

"In its way, it was just unintentional ignorance," says Carolyn Edgett, a senior human resource analyst. "There are a couple of environments that are conducive to this kind of thing."

But life went on. Then, seven months later -- on the afternoon of the first day of Black History Month -- the issue resurfaced. A county employee passed news of the Tar and Feather Award to a manager who gave it to Edgett, who told County Chairwoman Diane Linn, who fired off a strongly written e-mail.

"I have a zero tolerance policy for this kind of behavior in the workplace," Linn writes, "and consider it to be both inappropriate and injurious."

Linn directed a few folks to meet with union leaders. Her chief operating officer, Iris Bell, who is black, acknowledges "things got heated." She adds: "Not everybody in the union was pleased with what we said."

The next day, Becky Steward, who has been union president for a little over a year, apologized. She also changed the name of the award to "Rotten Eggs," and she pulled the offensive phrase from past newsletters posted on

Steward also agreed to offer voluntary diversity training to her union leaders and general employees, especially since most of them didn't realize the term could be offensive.

Before management complained, Steward says, "I hadn't heard anyone sharing with me how insensitive and thoughtless we were about that."


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