AFL-CIO Executive Board wants to prepare to fight Sizemore ballot measures

SALEM - The Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board has asked President Irv Fletcher to appoint a committee to consider calling an emergency convention to allow affiliates to vote on a per capita assessment that would be used to raise money to fight any "right-to-work (for less)" legislation or initiatives that might be coming down the pike.

Bill Sizemore, executive director of Oregon Taxpayers United, has already filed two initiative petitions for November 2000 that would ban union dues checkoff for private and public sector union members, and union officials said Republicans (specifically State Representative Steve Harper of Klamath Falls) in control of the House and Senate are seriously considering referring a "right-to-work" bill to voters. A legislative referral cannot be vetoed by the governor.

The next AFL-CIO convention is scheduled Sept. 12-15, 1999 in North Bend, which wouldn't leave much time to raise the money it would take to fight a right-to-work (for less) ballot measure.

"I think the chances are slim to none that the House or Senate has the votes to refer a right-to-work bill to voters," Fletcher said. "But we know that Sizemore makes his living promoting initiatives that attack labor, so we have to deal with that. We won't know until July 2000 if his initiatives qualify, but we can't wait that long."

In 1996, AFL-CIO affiliates agreed to a 30-cent-a-month special assessment to combat a Sizemore right-to-work initiative. Sizemore failed to gather enough valid signatures to qualify for the ballot and the assessment was stopped, but the money collected was later used - by convention action - for another anti-union measure that was on the ballot.

Fletcher hopes the assessment committee can meet this month and announce its plans as soon as possible. "I would expect a special convention sometime in March," Fletcher said.

In the meantime, the state labor federation's Executive Board voted to introduce several bills at the 1999 Legislature.

The Oregon AFL-CIO is drafting legislation to cut restaurants' take on video poker and other gambling sources and put that money into the state general fund.

"If it doesn't fly in this Legislature we will strongly consider an initiative for the general election in 2000," said Fletcher.

Organized labor has a good track record finding support for its ballot measures. Most recently it promoted passage of the Open and Fair Elections Act (Measure 62) and did the same with the state minimum wage increase in 1996.

The state labor federation will introduce three workers' compensation bills - a topic that is likely to be a hot issue this session because provisions from controversial changes to statutes in 1995 are due to expire this year. Big business groups want to remove the sunset clause and allow all current laws to continue, but the Oregon AFL-CIO and many union leaders maintain the 1995 reforms are detrimental to injured workers and must be changed.

"The whole concept of workers' compensation has been destroyed," said State Representative-elect Diane Rosenbaum, who chaired the AFL-CIO Committee on Health, Safety and Workers' Compensation, and is on the state labor federation's Executive Board. "It needs to be reinstated so that it does what it is supposed to do - and that is help people when they are injured at work."

The AFL-CIO thinks it is unfair that a worker hurt on the job and denied workers' compensation benefits has no other recourse. An example cited at the Executive Board meeting was an injured worker being denied benefits because the accident was not a "major contributing cause" to the injury.

The AFL-CIO's bill would give an injured worker the right to sue an employer for negligence when the negligence caused the condition. "Right now a claim is denied if it is determined that the accident did not cause 51 percent of the injury. For the 49 percent that the employer is responsible, the injured worker gets zero," said Alice Dale of the Oregon Public Employees Union, who is the federation's second vice president.

The state labor federation also voiced concerns about the ability of insurance companies and self-insured employers to close claims with little or no oversight. Insurance companies now handle about 60 percent of all claims closures and a recommendation has been made to eliminate the Evaluation Unit of the Workers Compensation Division altogether and allow insurance companies to do all claims closures.

The State Accident and Insurance Fund (SAIF) Corp. and Liberty Insurance have trained staff to close claims since 1990, and only send the most difficult cases to the state, according to an AFL-CIO subcommittee report.

"The issue here is an impartial government body giving way to vested, self-interested insurers and turning over regulatory functions to insurance interests. This leaves serious consumer protections issues open," the subcommittee reported.

If the Workers' Compensation Department ceases closing claims, the AFL-CIO wants to replace it with an audit division to determine if claims are being closed properly. It also wants to establish an audit unit that would evaluate, counsel and advise settlement offers to injured workers.

The state labor federation also wants to set up a department to monitor the information used to close an injured workers' claim, the kind of benefits awarded, and how vocational rehabilitation benefits are used. These audits would be published and available to the general public.

If injured workers can't have impartial evaluation of their claims, they and the public should be able to at least check the insurers' compliance with the evaluation laws and regulations, the subcommittee said. "We must hold the insurers accountable for a public trust which runs into billions of dollars annually."

The Oregon AFL-CIO wants to restore the definition of permanent total disability that preceded the legislative changes in 1995. PTD would mean the "loss, including pre-existing disability, of use or function of any scheduled or unscheduled portion of the body which permanently incapacitates the worker from regularly performing work at a gainful and suitable occupation. A suitable occupation is one which the worker has the ability and training or experience to perform, or an occupation which the worker is able to perform after rehabilitation." The current statute defines "gainful occupation" as one which pays a minimum wage.

The labor federation also wants to delete the section in the statute that defines a major contributing cause and pre-existing condition because it feels it is unfair to injured workers.

January 1, 1999 issue

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