Labor happy to see legislative session come to an end

The Oregon labor movement is wiping its collective brow after enduring one of the longest - and nastiest - legislative sessions in history.

During the course of the 197-day session the Republican-controlled Legislature passed a record 1,169 bills, 205 resolutions and joint memorials, and referred a record 22 bills to the ballot for a public vote over the next three elections (through November 2000).

"Most of our time was spent turning over rocks and killing snakes," said Irv Fletcher, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, who spent his last session lobbying before he retires in September.

A litany of Republican-sponsored bills involved direct attacks on organized labor and lower-income workers, including a "right-to-work (for less)" bill, proposals to ban project labor agreements and eliminate prevailing wages on public works projects, attempts to privatize prisons and public transit districts, a bill weakening teachers' collective bargaining rights by allowing school districts to base teachers' pay and benefits on a state growth formula, and creation of a third tier in the Public Employees Retirement System that would have cut new workers' benefits in half. None of those bills passed.

Republicans also pushed bills to roll back the 1996 voter-approved minimum wage for tipped-employees and create a lower "opportunity wage" for new hires; to strip away employees' rights under the state family leave law by not allowing them to return to the same job they left; to make it easier for growers to fire farm workers who might complain about working conditions and wages or cause other "disruptive" actions, and to lower the penalty on employers who don't pay former employees their final wages (known as the Jackie Winters Bill, after the bill's sponsor, a Republican restaurant owner who was sued by several former workers who didn't get paid for hours worked).

Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber is expected to or already has vetoed several of the "bad" bills that made it to his desk, including the tip-credit bill, farm workers bill and the Jackie Winters bill. By the time the ink dries he could reject a record 64 bills.

"The message here is that Oregon voters must elect senators and representatives that put workers first rather than voting tax relief for the rich and famous," Fletcher said.

Labor lobbyists and representatives had mixed reactions about the legislative session, although all agreed it was the most rancorous session in memory.

"It's probably the meanest session I've ever seen," said Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building Trades Council and a former state legislator who spent six sessions in Salem. "Lawmakers were absolutely uncivil to each other, let alone us."

State Senator Tony Corcoran, a member of the Oregon Public Employees Union from Cottage Grove, witnessed "an incredible amount of anger" among the Republican leadership. "That's why it took five months to get a budget. The Republican leadership wasn't talking to each other," he said.

Most Republicans who campaigned to make school funding their top priority fought all session long against it. In the very end, they passed a $4.811 billion school budget - a 10.5 percent increase from the 1997-99 budget, but less than a special task force had recommended and a far cry from the 21 percent hike they passed to increase their own support staffs.

The session was not only mean in terms of partisan bickering, Corcoran continued, but more so in terms of the content of the legislation proposed. "It was mean and nasty," he said. "Randy (Leonard) and I couldn't get a bill with our names on it out of committee, no matter how good a bill it was."

Despite that, Shiprack said the Building Trades Council had some success. In addition to a gas tax increase it supported, the building trades successfully lobbied a "prompt-pay bill" that requires all general contractors to pay their subcontractors within 30 days of receiving payment from the contracting agency, or face large interest penalties, and prevents "bid shopping" by prime contractors.

Approval of a gas tax measure came after three sessions of failure. The bill increases the gas tax by 2 cents a gallon in November, and 3 cents in January 2000. It also increases vehicle registration fees by $10 and substitutes a diesel tax for the weight-mile system, which assesses trucks based on their weight and miles traveled. The money will be used for repairs and expansion of Oregon's increasingly congested and crumbling highways.

Other newly-enacted laws backed by the building trades will require drug testing of workers on all future public works construction projects; will establish a pilot project for two unions to bargain certain aspects of workers' compensation insurance; extends from three to five weeks the time an apprentice can attend related training and collect unemployment insurance benefits in one year, and will revamp how permits and inspections are obtained in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties. A task force will be created to design a new permits system among the 33 different permit and inspections agencies in the tri-county metro area that will allow citizens to get permits at any county service center.

Another major bill supported by the building trades was Senate Bill 271, which defines "lowest responsible bidder" and requires contracting agencies to do background checks on all low-bid contractors to make sure they measure up.

One bill that organized labor was unable to stop (although the governor may veto it) was HB 3605. The bill amends the Employer Liability Act by capping non-economic damages (pain and suffering) for job-related injuries or death at $500,000 if third-party negligence can be proved. It also changes the "fault standard" to one of comparative fault, which means if a third party was less than 50 percent responsible, no lawsuit can be pursued.

"We felt the coincidence of this bill to the Portland Airport disaster (in which three Iron Workers were killed in a parking garage collapse) was clear," Shiprack said. "The original bill even had a retroactive clause to go back in time to change these lawsuits (filed by the families of the Iron Workers)."

Senator Corcoran said HB 3605 stood out as "one of the most egregiously self-serving displays in the Capitol this session. The business lobby and employer groups were out enforce to pass this bill."

"There was over $500 million in special interest tax breaks passed by this Legislature," said Mary Botkin, lobbyist for Oregon Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "We have never in our experience seen such overt, unbridled greed and self-serving behavior. Fortunately we believe the governor will veto a lot of these bills."

"I'm really glad it's over," said State Representative Dan Gardner, a member of Electrical Workers Local 48 and a two-term legislator.

Gardner said that early on in the session labor's representatives at the Legislature - Corcoran, Diane Rosenbaum, Gary Hansen and Randy Leonard, met regularly and agreed to use their staffs to track bad labor bills. "We had well over 100 bad labor bills in that bin," said Gardner, who is seeking the post of Democratic minority leader in a vote that will be held Saturday, Aug. 21, in Salem.

"If Republicans could have gotten a clear vote to repeal laws on collective bargaining, they would have," said Leonard, a former president of Portland Fire Fighters Local 43. "The only thing really standing in the way was the governor (and his veto power)."

Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 757 identified 113 bills that had a potential impact (both good and bad) on its members. "Seventy-two of those bills failed to make it through the process, while 37 passed," said Secretary-Treasurer Tom Wallace.

One that did pass with ATU's support exempts public transit bus operators from the seat belt law. Another bill that ATU supported but which failed would have granted binding arbitration for ambulance service employees in lieu of a strike or lockout.

ATU helped defeat a proposal that would have required transit districts to put out for competitive bid every bus route they serve.

"Our greatest victories were marked by the innumerable anti-worker, anti-union bills that organized labor defeated," said Brad Witt, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

A couple of examples involved workplace safety inspections and unemployment insurance.

Labor lobbyists helped dilute HB 2830, which would have eliminated random and surprise Occupational Safety and Health inspections for hazardous industries and which would have allowed management to represent employees during "walkaround" inspections.

Another was HB 3203, a "work first" bill sponsored by Klamath Falls multimillionaire and non-union employer Richard Wendt that would have required unemployed workers to be enrolled in the state-subsidized JOBS Plus program and required to take any job available (even at minimum wage), instead of receiving unemployment insurance benefits. JOBS Plus subsidizes employers by paying workers' wages.

Labor also helped kill a prison privatization bill and another bill that would have eliminated all but two of the current labor representatives on the Public Employees Retirement System Board.

"It was a session that labor, in general, played defense. But we played it well," said Rich Peppers, a lobbyist for the Oregon Public Employees Union. "We successfully stopped a string of anti-labor bills and were able to get through several bills that we supported."

Some of the "good" bills passed - as tracked by labor lobbyists - were a landslide hazard protection policy, exempting glass container manufacturers from recycled glass requirements under specified circumstances, a modification of laws regulating abandonment and reclamation of surface mining lands, and a pesticide tracking "right-to-know" bill.

Other "victories" included bills that separate work-related accidents of public employees from their personal driving records; expedited hearings and testing procedures for public safety personnel exposed to another person's bodily fluids. Under the previous law it required a court order to test an individual for communicable diseases when bodily fluids were exchanged; will require that duplicate signatures on initiative petitions be factored separately - one at a time. It establishes, by law, that the secretary of state examine each petition for duplications and establish an error rate for individual petitions. (If this law had been in effect, last year's anti-union Ballot Measure 59 would not have appeared on the ballot.).

House Bill 2629 originally would have provided automatic acceptance of workers' compensation coverage for all public safety personnel if they had a documented exposure to bodily fluids that could lead to Hepatitis B or C. It assumed that if you worked in public safety and contracted Hepatitis B or C that it was work related, therefore placing the burden of proof on the employer to show cause as to where else it may have been contracted. In the last days of session the bill was amended to create a study.

Representative Gardner introduced and passed a referral bill supported by organized labor intended to change the prison inmate work program so that the corrections director avoids direct competition with the private sector and displaces law-abiding, working citizens. House Joint Resolution 82 will be on the ballot this November.

A House Joint Resolution that would increase the number of signatures needed to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot and reduce the number needed for a statutory initiative was passed with labor's support. It will appear on the ballot in May 2000.

Lawmakers made permanent most of the controversial workers' compensation "reforms" enacted earlier this decade - reforms that have saved employers millions and millions of dollars in premiums, but which haven't increased payments to injured workers at the same levels.

A couple of labor-backed workers' compensation bills won approval. Senate Bill 729 eliminates the two-year cap on temporary partial disability workers' compensation payments and SB 460 increases permanent partial disability benefits.

Governor Kitzhaber did sign a charter school bill opposed by the American Federation of Teachers and the Oregon Education Association. Lawmakers spent months laying out ground rules for how to set up the alternative schools. The deal was completed when Kitzhaber agreed to allow half of the teachers in charter schools to be unlicensed, as long as they undergo background checks.

Another bill winning approval will move the state's electric power industry toward deregulation. It calls for commercial and industrial customers in the territory of Oregon's two biggest private utilities to receive direct access to competing energy supplies by Oct. 1, 2001 while residential customers will be offered a portfolio of options.

Electrical Workers Local 125 followed this debate closely and helped shape it to a more palatable (although not perfect) conclusion. However, in the waning hours of the session a second bill introduced by investor-owned utilities dropped a bill to "restructure" the Oregon Public Utility Commission (PUC) so that it was governor-appointed.

"The PUC is supposed to operate independently and without political or partisan influence," said Diane Royse, a lobbyist for Local 125. "This is nothing but a political tool for the investor-owned utilities to go straight to the governor with any complaints they may have in their rate cases. In light of the electrical restructuring bill, this is not the time for any restructuring of the PUC."

HB 2007, the "tobacco settlement bill" was very controversial, in that many lawmakers wanted to tap the money to help pay for schools. That didn't happen, but the end result did help fund several public employee union bargaining units.

"I think all the labor legislators worked tremendously hard this session," Gardner said. " We would much rather have worked to pass good legislation for working men and women rather than spending as much time as we did trying to defeat the bad labor legislation."

Corcoran commended Governor Kitzhaber and his staff for how well they worked with labor lawmakers, keeping the doors of communication open throughout the session.

August 20, 1999 issue

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