By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
When the newly-installed Oregon Legislature opens Feb. 4 for its 2013 session, organized labor will be in the building.
The Oregon AFL-CIO will press lawmakers to fund the Columbia River Crossing, ban public sector union-busting, and preserve industrially-zoned land. Building trades unions will seek to close loopholes in the state prevailing wage law. And public-sector unions will try to minimize the harm to members’ interests from a set of reforms Gov. John Kitzhaber is proposing to the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).
As always, the Legislature’s biggest task will be to approve a state budget, deciding how much the state will spend on education, public safety, and social safety net programs. But since voter-approved legislation bars any legislative revenue increase without a hard-to-achieve three-fifths supermajority, Capitol budget battles tend to be about how to prioritize existing revenues.
The governor made PERS savings a major element of this year’s budget proposal. PERS covers approximately 120,000 retirees and 140,000 non-retired current and former public employees. Over 900 Oregon public employers participate in the system, including state and local government employers and school districts. Kitzhaber is proposing three changes: capping retirees’ cost-of-living increases at $480 a year; excluding PERS recipients who don’t pay Oregon income tax from a program of income tax reimbursements; and allowing unionized public employers to negotiate partial reductions in the employer “pickup” of employee retirement contributions. The governor’s office says the first two changes would save state and local governments and school districts $865 million over two years. The third proposal, says Oregon AFSCME political director Joe Baessler, would “make it easier to slowly bleed folks” in contract bargaining. All three proposals would achieve savings at the expense of public employee retirees.
“We are disappointed,” wrote Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 President Rob Sisk in a letter to members, “because the governor’s main path to more revenue is to go after the earned benefits of front-line workers and retirees.” Sisk said the governor’s budget relies on PERS cutbacks to fund essential services, and it doesn’t address tax fairness.
The cost-of-living cap would affect the 47 percent of PERS recipients who receive over $24,000 in annual benefits. But Baessler said judging by past court decisions, such a measure could be struck down in court, since it changes what workers were promised after they retire.
Elana Guiney, legislative and communications director of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said the state labor federation will support the legislative efforts of affiliated unions like Oregon AFSCME Council 75.
The Oregon AFL-CIO itself will be pursuing a “not-just-jobs, but good jobs” agenda, Guiney said. In other words, for any bill that lawmakers justify as a job-creator, the labor federation will ask for guarantees and minimum standards for the jobs created.
The Oregon AFL-CIO will also promote an expanded crackdown on employers that falsely mischaracterize employees as “independent contractors.” In recent years, a multi-agency task force has improved enforcement, but it only acts when there’s a complaint. The Oregon AFL-CIO wants the state to hire an investigator to conduct proactive employer audits and levy fines on repeat offenders.
The Oregon AFL-CIO will also back a bill to maintain Oregon’s supply of industrial land by making it harder to rezone land that’s slated for industrial use.
And it will push a bill to bar taxpayer-funded union-busting by public employers. The bill would require public employers to remain neutral in any union organize drive. A bill in a previous legislative session would have required such neutrality of contractors doing government business as well, but the one to be introduced this year applies only to public employers. Guiney gives an example of why the legislation is needed: Last year, when University of Oregon faculty turned in union authorization cards, the administration hired a high-priced California attorney who specializes in union-avoidance; that reaction would have been a no-no under the proposed legislation.
Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC) will be promoting several large public works projects that could result in employment for union members. The biggest is the proposed Columbia River Crossing project, which includes a replacement to the I-5 bridge over the Columbia River. Oregon would contribute $450 million, with Washington matching that amount, and the federal government kicking in the rest. The funds could come from bonds backed by increases in gas taxes and license and vehicle registration fees. Also up for consideration is a $60 million fifth phase of a multi-modal transportation investment program known as Connect Oregon. Connect Oregon pays for improvements to non-highway transporta- tion infrastructure, including ports, airports, and railroads.
Another bill to be backed by the building trades would make it easier to site utility-scale solar development in Eastern Oregon. Current land-use rules prohibit solar arrays larger than 100 acres on land zoned for farm use, but John Mohlis, executive secretary of OSBCTC, says solar projects need to be at least 250 acres to pan out economically. Mohlis, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 280 Business Manager Tim Frew, and IBEW Local 48 Political Director Joe Esmonde served alongside solar developers and environmental groups on an interim legislative task force that looked into the issue.
OSBCTC will also push to expand the state’s prevailing wage law to construction projects on state university land that are paid for with private money, to private construction projects that receive more than $750,000 in tax credits, and to projects over $5 million that qualify for Enterprise Zone property tax abatements.
Oregon AFSCME will pursue several changes to Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act. One bill would allow for binding arbitration after 60 days — for issues that arise outside of the normal collective bargaining timeline; it’s designed to crack down on what the union sees as an abuse: public employers raising stand-alone issues after a contract is settled, and then implementing their “expedited bargaining” proposals after a 90-day period, whether the union likes it or not. Another bill would put employees of the Oregon Department of Justice in the category of public employees who have binding arbitration instead of the right to strike; Baessler said attorneys can face ethics charges at the Oregon Bar if they strike.
Meanwhile, Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 will have to contend with an attempt by TriMet to remove transit workers from that “non-strikable” category. A bill to do that was filed pre-session by the House Transportation and Economic Development Committee.
Unions will also be paying attention as the state finalizes the workings of the new insurance exchange. In state “exchanges” — a key part of the national health insurance reform law known as Obamacare — individuals and small businesses will go to purchase insurance and receive federal subsidies. The exchanges have to be up and running for open enrollment in October 2013, for insurance coverage that begins January 2014.
AFSCME’s Baessler said earnings by some members at non-profit contractors are low enough to qualify for the subsidies. Plus, in Oregon, there’s been talk of letting various government employers buy insurance on the exchange.
Democrats have majorities over Republicans in both chambers, by 16-14 in the Senate and 34-26 in the House.
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