Fletcher to retire from top post of Oregon AFL-CIO

Irv Fletcher, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO for the past 18 years, is retiring.

It doesn't seem all that long ago that the former junior high school teacher was leading car caravans of donated food from Klamath Falls to farm workers in Delano, Calif., to aid the late union leader Cesar Chavez in his national boycott of grapes and lettuce.

But, amazingly, that was more than three decades ago.

This month, Fletcher, 67, will preside over the last state labor federation convention of the millennium before officially turning over the gavel to a new leader Oct. 1.

Reflecting on his career, Fletcher, a member of the American Federation of Teachers, said one of the most striking changes during his tenure has been the nature of work in the state - from that of manual labor to skilled labor.

"The AFL-CIO is a different organization than when I attended my first convention in 1971," he said. "In the structural makeup of the organization, for one, there were very few public employees when I came in. It was heavy with industrial union members."

Fletcher took the reins of the state labor federation in 1981 at a contentious convention in Springfield (where he defeated incumbent Bob Kennedy, a member of Portland Machinists Lodge 1432).

At the time, Ronald Reagan was president of the United States and in the midst of busting the Professional Air Traffic Controllers Organization (and opening a whole new chapter in anti-union behavior). "Right-to-work (for-less)" laws, sub-minimum wage proposals, prevailing wage attacks, timber supply, endangered species listings, and replacement tax revenues were issues of concern, to name only a few.

The Pacific Northwest was also suffering one of its worst recessions in years.

Oregon AFL-CIO affiliation hovered at just over 90,000 - with more than 40 percent of the membership comprised of lumber and wood products industry unions. Public employee unions were just starting to come into their own following passage of the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act in 1973.

By 1983, one-third of the membership was gone -due mostly to double-digit unemployment in the industrial sector, Fletcher recalled. "It was a good three years before we got out of that," he said. "We've been trying to get those numbers back ever since."

At this month's convention in North Bend, the Oregon AFL-CIO will boast an affiliation of 108,000. But now, public employee unions make up more than 40 percent of the affiliates.

In fact, the two men campaigning to succeed Fletcher as president are from the state's largest public employee unions - Oregon Public Employees (OPEU) Local 503 and Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME).

Fletcher said the growth of public employee unions has allowed the state labor federation to "maintain some equilibrium," as other union locals' memberships tend to fluctuate with the economy. "Industrial unions have no control over employment, where-as public employees do," he said. "Public employees can go directly to city councils and elected officials. With a friendly governor and a half-way decent Legislature you won't see massive layoffs, whereas in the industrial world a mill can announce a shutdown and there's nothing you can do."

Fletcher surfaced in the Oregon labor movement in the early 1960s, when he made local news by helping organize fellow teachers in Klamath Falls. "I went to the Yellow Pages and called the American Federation of Teachers," he recalled.

Teachers were perturbed because the school's principal and district's superintendent were always attending teacher functions. "A union rep came to our meeting and told us only classroom teachers could belong. He asked us to sign cards that night," Fletcher said. "I wasn't prepared to sign anything that quickly, but he talked us into it."

A couple of weeks later the teachers union received its charter (Klamath Falls Federation of Teachers Local 1664) and Fletcher was elected vice president. At the end of the school year the elected president left the school and Fletcher became president. As the union's leader he collected dues ($2 a month), published a newsletter, and organized a food bank and car caravans to Delano to assist struggling farm workers.

Born in Maine and still carrying a distinct New England accent, Fletcher learned about organized labor from his late father, a railroad conductor and member of the United Transportation Union in New England.

Fletcher served in the Navy as a machinist in the Korean War and holds a master's degree in education from the University of Maine and a master's degree in industrial relations from the University of Oregon.

He moved to Eugene in 1970 where he worked as a painter while attending UofO. Fletcher commuted from Eugene to Salem for five years, working as coordinator of an employment orientation program in the State Division of Corrections for inmates preparing to be released.

From 1976 to '81 he was director of the State Apprenticeship Information Center in Eugene. In his two state jobs he was a member of OPEU.

He was elected executive secretary-treasurer of the Lane County Labor Council in 1971 and ran unsuccessfully for the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board in 1973. Two years later he captured a seat on the board, where he remained until running for president.

As executive secretary of the Lane County Labor Council he busied himself in a wide range of civic, civil rights, charitable and education organizations in the Eugene area.

He also lobbied in the Oregon Legislature at Salem, and played a role in gaining legislative approval for the Labor Education and Research Center, which was established at UofO in 1977.

As president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, Fletcher said he focused his energies on carrying out the mandates of convention-passed resolutions, which he considers "the gospel."

During his tenure as chief executive officer Fletcher worked with three elected secretary-treasurers. His first years in office were spent with Bob Baugh, who later departed to take a position in state government and later with the national AFL-CIO's Human Resources Development Institute. The late Steve Socotch succeeded Baugh, but illness forced him to resign in 1991. Socotch, who eventually went to work for the State Accident Insurance Fund Corp., died earlier this year after a long battle with a kidney disease and other ailments. For the last eight years Fletcher has worked with Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt, who is running for re-election.

Fletcher cited as a major accomplishment the acquisition of "an office we can call home." Since 1902 the state labor federation has rented office space, but several years ago it purchased a building at 2110 State St. in Salem.

Fletcher said he also was pleased to be leaving the labor federation with Oregon sporting the highest minimum wage in the country, the second-highest unemployment insurance benefits in the Western United States, and one of only a few states to have consistently turned back a minimum wage tip credit for restaurant workers [a bill calling for a tip credit and training wage passed the 1999 Legislature but is expected to be vetoed by Governor John Kitzhaber].

He said labor has also had a hand in helping Oregon keep out a sales tax and self-service gas stations.

Fletcher pointed to two "major disappointments" in his 18 years in office. The first was an inability to "bring together on a common agenda" the leadership of the state's two public employee unions, OPEU and AFSCME. "The challenge for whomever wins the presidential election will be to bring labor together - and keep it together," he said.

With the exception of AFSCME, Steelworkers, AFT and the American Federation of Government Employees, no union local is obligated to affiliate with the Oregon AFL-CIO and, in fact, many building trades locals have departed or trimmed their affiliation in recent years, citing philosophical differences with the labor federation leadership.

The second regret, he said, was not nailing down a percentage increase in workers' compensation insurance benefits for injured workers - indexed with the savings that employers have received in premiums - from the controversial Mahonia Hall workers' compensation "reforms" of 1991.

Prior to the reform bill's passage at a special session of the Legislature employers paid some of the highest workers' comp premiums in the country while workers received some of the lowest benefits. Today, employers pay some of the lowest premiums in the country while workers' benefits are no better than mid-level.

"Employers have saved billions of dollars, but workers haven't seen a commensurate increase in benefits," said Fletcher, who was a member of the labor-management Mahonia Hall coalition that crafted the reform bill.

During his years in the labor movement Fletcher has worked with - and sometimes against - six governors.

Tom McCall appointed him to the Juvenile Justice Advisory Committee; Bob Straub tapped him for the state school commission; Vic Atiyeh appointed him to an open seat on the Economic Development Commission; Neil Goldschmidt put him on the Oregon Progress Board and Oregon Public Broadcasting Commission; Barbara Roberts named him to the Employment Division Advisory Council, and John Kitzhaber picked him for the Oregon Workforce Advisory Council.

He said Roberts was the only Democratic governor whom he "encouraged someone to run against." Looking back, he thought Oregon's first woman chief executive officer made a mistake by delegating too much authority to administrators. He said labor had a difficult time communicating with her directly. "It wasn't that Barbara was anti-labor," Fletcher said. "I just think she got a lot of bad advice." Roberts did not run for a second term.

Fletcher announced his retirement earlier this year, citing a personal rule he made for himself many years ago to not run for re-election after age 65. He turned 67 Aug. 30 and his last election was in 1995. Until 1991, terms of office were two years, but a bylaws change at the 36th annual convention [and authorized by the national AFL-CIO)] extended terms to four years.

Only one man has held Oregon's top labor post longer than Fletcher, albeit some of the time served was prior to the AFL-CIO merger in 1956. Jim Marr was the chief executive for 21 years.

Fletcher faced competition for his job in almost every AFL-CIO election cycle since 1985. He ran uncontested in 1983 and 1995, but was challenged in 1985, 1987, 1989 and 1991. However, not all of the campaigns went to an election at convention.

In retirement, Fletcher plans to return to teaching as a substitute. He recently reinstated his teaching credentials, which he had let lapse years ago.

He has been a lobbyist in Salem, part- or full-time since 1973, but says he has no ambition to seek an elected political office.

Fletcher lives in Woodburn with his wife Eva. He has a son Steve who is an air traffic controller in Salt Lake City and chair of his union's political action committee. His oldest son Bill is a computer programmer at Lane Community College in Eugene; a daughter Kathrina is married to a specialty banker and lives in Lake Oswego, and a mentally-challenged son, David, lives with his former wife Ann. He has a dozen grandchildren.

September 3, 1999 issue

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