PORTLAND, Ore. — In the spirit of the holidays, 300 people joined a picket line outside the Parry Center for Children Dec. 10, protesting the starvation wages that forced the 85 child care workers on strike Nov. 29.

The “Festival of Lights and Rights” in solidarity with the members of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 503 was organized by the Oregon chapter of Jobs with Justice. The festival is an annual event held in support of workers’ right to organize. People carried candles and flashlights to ward off the chill darkness on Powell Boulevard and dozens of drivers honked in sympathy as they passed.

“The community support — both from the labor community and the community at large — has been tremendous,” said shop steward Colleen Erin Sullivan as she led the picket line. “At our first rally more than 500 people showed up and we expect a big turnout at a rally downtown this Friday. Our morale his stayed very high in no small part because of the solidarity.”

Sullivan said the starting wage at the center, a resident facility that serves emotionally troubled children and teens, is $8.86 per hour and is capped at $9.28 per hour, even though a college degree in psychology or sociology is a requirement for the job. In the last 18 months, turnover has reached 64 percent. “The turnover here is so high the quality of care and the safety of the children is compromised,” she said. “Obviously people come here because they care about kids. But they also need to be able to eat. The pay is so low that people are forced to move on.”

It can take months to win the confidence of children who have been victims of abuse, she said. A study by the Nursing Management Journal published in June 2000 showed a dramatic drop in the use of physical restraints as clients and their therapists got to know each other better. That bond is broken by rapid turnover.

The Trillium Corporation, which owns the Parry Center and three other child care centers in Oregon, claims to be a “nonprofit” but ended 2003 with an $868,694 surplus. The five managers awarded themselves salary increases ranging from 19.1 percent to 37.4 percent in 2002, a combined cost of $117,767 compared to the $63,000 it would have cost to give each of 120 wage workers a 45-cent-per-hour raise.

Sullivan said 90 percent of the operating revenue for the Parry Center come from taxpayer funds. The Multnomah County Council has accused Trillium of violating a county resolution on fair wages and worker rights. It and the Portland City Council have passed resolutions urging the firm to accept the strikers’ offer of settling the dispute through arbitration.

“They are under a lot of pressure,” Sullivan said. “As far as I am concerned, every Trillium worker, every worker, deserves to be paid a living wage and be represented by a union. But Trillium Corporation has rejected arbitration. They would prefer to break the union and sacrifice the children in the process. Now they are threatening to bring in permanent replacements.”

Sullivan graduated from Albion College in Michigan with a double major in psychology and sociology. She has been at the Parry Center for three and a half years, hoping that collective bargaining would win a livable wage for herself and her fellow workers.

“I am here because I think we can make a difference for these kids and change the face of children’s mental health care in Oregon,” she said.