Labor's Own legislator: CWA's Diane Rosenbaum

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Nearly 200,000 of Oregon's lowest-paid workers are getting $2,000 a year they might otherwise not have been paid; if you had to name the one person most responsible it would probably be State Representative Diane Rosenbaum.

As a lobbyist in Salem in 1989, Rosenbaum helped win a three-stage increase in the minimum wage from $3.35 an hour to $4.75. Then year after year she fought to defend it from legislative proposals to create a sub-minimum for trainees, young workers, and tipped employees.

In 1996, she chaired a successful ballot initiative that phased in another three-stage increase, to $6.50 an hour.

In the 1997 session, she fought yet another attempt to get a sub-minimum for "tip credit" and a "training wage." It failed on a tie vote in the House. Rosenbaum decided she'd better go to Salem full-time to defend the minimum wage, so when term limits ousted Portland House District 14's George Eighmey in 1998, she ran for the office. In a hotly contested primary race with five other candidates, Rosenbaum didn't raise the most money, but she won.

Now running for a third term, she still spends more time on the minimum wage issue than on her own campaign for re-election. She's chief petitioner on Measure 25, an initiative on the ballot this November that would raise the minimum wage to $6.90 in January ... and remove it from political wrangling once and for all by locking in annual cost-of-living adjustments thereafter.

"I can't think of anything I've done that has had as immediate an effect on so many people," Rosenbaum said. A member of Communication Workers of America Local 7901, Rosenbaum is one of a handful of labor legislators in Salem who know which side they're on in any issue that affects working people.

Rosenbaum, 52, is a tireless organizer, and seems to be everywhere at once: She's a member of Portland Jobs with Justice, the Workers Rights Board, the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board, and a delegate to the Northwest Oregon Labor Council. The list goes on.

At the National Conference of State Legislators, she's vice president of the 200-member labor caucus, a group she helped form at last year's conference in San Antonio.

In her local union, she's a shop steward and former sector vice president.

In the two to three months a year she's not tied up with legislative work, Rosenbaum works for Qwest as a central office technician. "I wear a toolbelt, climb ladders and connect wires," Rosenbaum said.

Rosenbaum started with the phone company in 1975, when it was the Bell System. She was a telephone operator, but she hated it. "Those jobs where you're plugged in and monitored all day long are not good jobs," she said. "You have to ask permission to go to the bathroom."

At the first opportunity, she became a technician. There, she worked with a crew, with limited supervision, and was physically active.

She became a union steward. Pursuing her first grievance for a fellow member, she won an apology from a bad manager. Later, the union won his dismissal. "That really hooked me on CWA and the possibility of using the union to do something to improve working conditions," Rosenbaum said.

Political conviction started very early for Rosenbaum.

Born in Berkeley, California, in 1949, she was passing out literature for Lyndon Baines Johnson at the age of 14, and protesting high prices at inner-city grocery stores.

Then she moved to Portland in 1967 to study literature at Reed College. She didn't get a degree there, but she got a husband - fellow student Jazz Adams, now a lawyer for the Oregon Department of Justice.

It was through her experience as a union steward that she began to get involved in legislative politics: As she pursued grievances that resulted from an "epidemic" of carpal tunnel and other repetitive motion disorders at the phone company, she became interested in the difficulties injured workers face.

In 1989 she went to Salem as lobbyist for the Oregon State Industrial Union Council (a now-defunct subdivision of the AFL-CIO that was formed by the CIO unions after their 1956 merger with the AFL.)

She became an expert on the workers' compensation system, and fought, unsuccessfully, employer attempts to lighten the load by dumping injured workers and reducing benefits. And she fought for the minimum wage. "[The minimum wage issue] shows that labor is not just a narrow special interest," Rosenbaum said. "We're out there for working people."

Rosenbaum attributes her first-time-out electoral victory to the support she got from unions, especially her own. To get her elected, her fellow CWA members went door-to-door in the cold and dark and wet. Plus, Rosenbaum said, "Nobody phone banks like CWA members."

And all the while she was running her own House campaign, she also served as a full-time coordinator for the campaign that defeated Bill Sizemore's attack on public employees' right to contribute to political campaigns. Her first session as a legislator, in 1999, was very frustrating, Rosenbaum said. "We were fighting defensive battles."

But she did learn how to use parliamentary maneuvers - like issuing minority reports to force floor debate on issues that had been bottled up in committee.

Among her achievements: an expanded working family child care credit, won because it was tied to a business tax credit; and floor debate on a bill to require insurance companies that cover Viagra to cover birth control for women as well.

Her votes in her two legislative sessions earned her a 100 percent rating from the Oregon AFL-CIO's Committee on Political Education.

"She's become a very effective leader, more behind the scenes than front-and-center, because the Democratic Party is in the minority," said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt. "She's developed a lot of respect among her colleagues for her mastery of facts and her reasoned arguments."

Now, redrawn in last summer's redistricting, Rosenbaum's District 14 has become District 42. It runs from Southeast 52nd Avenue on the east side of Portland to the Willamette River, and from Interstate 84 to Southeast Steele Street.

Her seat is safe: She hasn't had a Democratic challenger since her first race, and no Republican ran against her this time or the last.

This November, if they win two extra seats in the Senate and three in the House, the Democrats would have a majority.

If that happens, Rosenbaum, as a third-term legislator in the top 10 percent in seniority, would likely head a committee. Then the steadfast defender of the minimum wage would become the pro-active originator of numerous proposals for tax justice, paid family leave, and other progressive reforms.

Tellingly, Rosenbaum's minimum wage efforts may prove the clincher. Political strategists say having a minimum wage initiative on the ballot brings in younger, poorer, more Democratic voters, which could have an impact on who goes to Salem next January.

"We have the best chance we've had in a decade," Rosenbaum said, "of taking back both houses of the Legislature."

August 16, 2002 issue

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