Oregon AFL-CIO creates 'New Alliance'

When the Oregon AFL-CIO mobilized an unprecedented 340,000 union members to vote in the 2000 General Election, it sent a clear message to the Bill Sizemores of the state that organized labor is a force that has to be reckoned with.

The turnout of union members casting ballots was the highest percentage of any state in the nation and it resulted in the defeat of all six of Sizemore's anti-union ballot measures - including two "paycheck deception" initiatives aimed at weakening labor's involvement in politics. [Sizemore is executive director of Oregon Taxpayers United and operates a for-profit signature-gathering business.]

On Saturday, May 4, the Oregon AFL-CIO made plans to build on that winning foundation by launching the New Alliance, a strategy intended to create permanent neighborhood-based political activist networks and to coordinate multi-union organizing blitzes in all corners of the state.

"What the New Alliance is all about is harnessing all that awesome power that you demonstrated during Labor 2000 and putting it to work on a daily basis - not just in times of crisis, but every day," said Richard Trumka, secretary-treasurer of the national AFL-CIO, at the May 4 convocation held at Electrical Workers Local 48's hall in northeast Portland.

"Power for bargaining better contracts ... power for politics ... power for bringing millions of new members into our unions. We all know we have that kind of power - we see it whenever we're confronted with a challenge - and the New Alliance will help us build permanent power."

Oregon is the fifth labor federation in the nation -the others are Colorado, Maryland, New York and North Carolina - to introduce a New Alliance, which is being likened to the 1955 merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO).

"This is a once in a lifetime event," declared Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt, just before more than 200 delegates from 45 unions and labor councils voted approval of a new constitution that sets into motion formation of the New Alliance. The tally - representing the total membership of each international union present and voting - was 146,387-0.

Nesbitt said with the New Alliance come commitments for the re-affiliation of more than 40,000 AFL-CIO union members with the state labor federation. Among the new affiliates is the once-independent Oregon Nurses Association.

The Teamsters Union abstained from voting, but Joint Council 37 Representative Lynn Lehrbach said they hope to be a part of the New Alliance in the near future.

The New Alliance is the brainchild of the national AFL-CIO. The goal is to have more local unions fully affiliated with state labor federations and central labor councils and to combine the resources of central labor councils in order to coordinate more joint campaigns with local unions supporting each other and community allies.

The thinking is that stronger regional and state organizations can better contest for power politically and economically. That way, everyone benefits from community campaigns - and from an agenda that brings economic development to all working families, and not just an agenda that focuses solely on collective bargaining. "We must turn organized labor upside down if that's what it takes to put it right side up. And that's what I know your commitment is," said Terrence O'Sullivan, international president of the Laborers Union and the convocation's keynote speaker.

"I believe that it will be your spark that will light the fire for all the rest of organized labor throughout this country to accept the challenge to grow and strengthen our movement and improve the lives of all of our members," he said. When the idea of a New Alliance was broached two years ago, the Oregon AFL-CIO was divided, and large unions, primarily in the building trades, were not affiliated. Many union leaders were skeptical and didn't think it would ever materialize.

"Leaders weren't communicating with one another; there was a lack of trust and too little mutual support for one another's struggles," said Trumka.

But after months of meetings a strategy was put in place. Central to the New Alliance for Oregon is a governance structure that will provide more inclusive representation and decision-making for affiliated unions, including:

* An expanded Executive Board with nine vice-presidents (compared to four currently) and 15 at-large members (versus five now).

* A new General Board and Committee on Political Education board to provide a seat at the table for every affiliated union, with a per capita voting option to ensure that decisions are reflective of the total membership.

* Direct representation for central labor councils (CLC) on the new Executive Board (five seats, including one vice-president) and General Board (all 13 CLCs represented) to replace the old system of district seats elected by territorial votes at statewide conventions.

* A voice and vote for constituency groups and retirees on the General Board to better reflect the diversity of workers and voters.

Also, as part of the governance structure, the Oregon AFL-CIO will establish special committees to address issues specific to three sectors of the labor movement:

* Building Trades, for apprenticeship and prevailing wage;

* Public employees, for the Public Employees Collective Bargaining Act and Public Employees Retirement System; and

* Federal/postal employees, for issues of concern to workers covered by federal bargaining laws other than the National Labor Relations Act.

"This product, in my opinion, will definitely strengthen the Oregon labor movement and, more importantly, increase workplace democracy in our state," said New Alliance Co-Chair Bob Shiprack, executive secretary-treasurer of the Oregon State Building Trades Council.

Joe Devlaeminck, retired president of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Oregon Council 75 and an early critic of the New Alliance, told the convocation that when a company's product isn't selling, it makes changes. "Labor does not make changes that well. If you look at the graphs, you'll see where organizing has gone down; things have changed. We need a new customer, new members. That means change - to change with those people out there to where we can organize them and get them back. And you're not going to do it unless you're willing to change. And that means don't let it get to the point where there are walkouts. Don't let it get to where there are disaffiliations.

"We cannot organize the unorganized unless we get ourselves organized in here. That's what this is all about today. All the old hatreds, all the old concepts need to be thrown out the door today and consider this a new movement under a great leader, Tim Nesbitt."

With the anticipated increase of 40 percent in affiliated membership, the delegates also approved an expanded budget for the Oregon AFL-CIO that will add two new permanent positions to support organizing and political action and continue year-round the resources put in place during the Labor 2000 campaign.

At the convocation delegates also heard about several organizing victories from organizers and rank-and-file members, many of them involving multi-union campaigns.

Some of the stories were about nurses at Milwaukie Providence Hospital joining the Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Care Professionals, an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers; ATT&T Broadband technicians joining Communications Workers of America; the Operating Engineers and Electrical Workers joint campaign at the Umatilla Chemical Depot, home care workers and their campaign with Service Employees Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union to create a new 12,500-member bargaining unit.

A new CLC Coordinating Committee, established as a committee of the Oregon AFL-CIO, will serve as a continuing committee of the New Alliance and begin meeting with union leaders to look at the structure of central labor councils to possibly refine their programs and consider resources that are available and options for staffing them. This second phase of the New Alliance will be completed by next September.

Also in attendance listening were Washington State Labor Council President Rick Bender and Secretary-Treasurer Al Link; and California AFL-CIO Executive Secretary-Treasurer Art Pulaski.

May 17, 2002 issue

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