Oregon AFL-CIO fleshes out legislative 'action plan'

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Some of Oregon's top labor leaders fleshed out an "action plan" for the 2003 state legislative session at a day-long political conference Jan. 11 organized by the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) of the University of Oregon.

Front-and-center in labor's agenda will be dealing with the ailing economy. But the state may not be able to do much about that if its own budget crisis isn't solved first.

About 140 people - including 11 state legislators - took part in the conference held at the Sheet Metal Training Center in Portland. The gathering took place a day after Governor -elect Ted Kulongoski released his proposed budget.

Kulongoski's budget for 2003-05 includes no plan for new revenues, and as a result it contains the equivalent of $2 billion in spending cuts, most significantly to community colleges and human services, especially services to seniors. It also includes a salary freeze for all teachers and state employees, and calls for public employees to pay any increases in their health insurance premiums.

Leaders of the state's biggest state workers' union - Service Employees International Union Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union - had their own statewide conference Jan. 11 and didn't attend the LERC conference. But they gave their reaction to the governor's budget in a Jan. 10 statement to the press.

"Even as a starting point for discussion, this budget is simply unacceptable," said Local 503 Executive Director Leslie Frane. She said the proposed cuts would devastate the quality of public services in the state.

"We don't expect Governor Kulongoski to get blood from a stone. We do expect him to provide leadership, and leadership requires confronting and challenging the myth that the current revenue system in Oregon provides sufficient resources to provide minimally-acceptable public services."

At the LERC conference, union leaders expressed dismay at the budget announcement. "I'm very disappointed," said Southeast Portland State Representative Diane Rosenbaum, a member of Communication Workers of America. "The people that stand to lose the most are the most vulnerable."

Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt tried to put the governor's budget package in context - the governor proposes, Nesbitt said, but the Legislature disposes. In other words, the governor can suggest whatever he likes, but it's the Legislature's job to pass a budget. Plus, Nesbitt said, the wage freezes and other takebacks that Kulongoski asked for will have to get the approval of the unions through collective bargaining.

Meanwhile, labor has its own pro-active agenda to fight for in Salem.

At the conference the Oregon AFL-CIO outlined over 30 separate proposals the federation intends to introduce. Then a panel of legislators, including one Republican, gave their reactions to it, with predictions for their chance of success. Many of the reforms labor will propose would benefit all workers. Some could form the basis of future ballot initiatives if the Legislature fails to enact them. The union legislative agenda was divided into nine issue areas:

To create more family-wage jobs, the federation proposes to deepen the Columbia River shipping channel; ensure an adequate supply of industrial land for new development; encourage the branding and marketing of Oregon products and a requirement that the state purchase first from Oregon suppliers; facilitate a "jobs in the woods" program that would put laid-off wood products workers back to work doing forest restoration and watershed protection year-round; and accelerate much-needed repairs on bridges and roads, paying for the improvements with a gas tax increase and/or higher automobile registration fees.

At the same time, the AFL-CIO opposes economic development schemes that offer tax breaks for vague promises of jobs. Instead, it proposes to condition any breaks on specific jobs at specific wages and demand a refund if tax-break recipients don't deliver; the new tax breaks would be funded by repealing less effective tax breaks elsewhere in the tax code.

Health care The AFL-CIO wants the state to create a prescription drug bulk purchasing entity; mandate safe staffing levels at hospitals; and use tax policy to encourage employers to pay their fair share of health care costs.

Poverty To address the crisis of hunger and poverty, the state fed will call for re-authorizing a 13-week state-funded extension of unemployment insurance benefits; extend those benefits to part-time workers; and intensify food stamp outreach programs in order to make sure Oregonians are getting all the federal dollars in that program that they're eligible for.

Worker retraining To make better use of federal worker retraining funds, the AFL-CIO suggests coordinating worker retraining programs with economic development strategies and increasing their funding without displacing or duplicating union apprenticeship programs.

Labor standards The labor federation will introduce bills to: establish a funding mechanism to provide paid family leave for workers to deal with family emergencies and illnesses; make the workers' compensation system more fair to injured workers; and lengthen rest and meal breaks for farm workers. It will also fight anticipated attempts to expand employers' ability to label their workers "independent contractors."

Unionization To help extend the benefits of unionization to more workers, the AFL-CIO wants the state to prohibit employers who get state funding from spending money to fight union organizing campaigns; direct public agencies and publicly-funded programs to recognize unions on the basis of "card-check" recognition, and extend unemployment insurance eligibility to workers locked out by their employers during labor disputes.

Taxes To establish a fair and adequate tax system, the AFL-CIO will support bills to make corporations pay the same tax rate on their profits that individuals pay on their income; repeal corporate tax breaks that don't result in family-wage jobs; refer to voters a constitutional amendment to remove Measure 5 property tax limits on commercial and industrial property; and disconnect from the federal tax code, since every federal tax cut currently lowers state taxes revenues as well.

Government efficiency To make government less expensive, the state fed wants to reduce the cost of the Public Employee Retirement System through responsible reforms being proposed by several public employee unions, and work to reduce employee health care costs.

Initiative reform The AFL-CIO wants the Legislature to establish appropriate penalties for violations of last year's Measure 26; establish mechanisms for challenging and excluding forged petition signatures; and avoid "ballot-title shopping" by requiring initiative backers to gather thousands of signatures before they receive final ballot titles.

Labor stalwart Tony Corcoran, a state senator from Cottage Grove, was on a panel that reacted to these proposals, as were Rosenbaum, Tualatin Democratic Senator Richard Devlin, and a lone Republican, Senator Charles Starr of Hillsboro.

Corcoran said he has little faith that the 2003 Legislature will do any good. Instead he said his motto will be "Do no further harm." At a time when the state is in its worst fiscal and economic crisis in decades, Corcoran said, the state's business leadership, gathered in an "Oregon Summit," had no new ideas. "These are supposed to be the smartest business people in the state," Corcoran said, "and all they can come up with is a revenue-neutral sales tax. There's no recognition of the fact that there's a $1.5 billion whole in the budget."

"This is going to be a tough session," Rosenbaum agreed, "but that is no reason to shy away from the issues." Rosenbaum said she wants to cut commissions on video poker collected by restaurant and drinking establishments, and a rule to publicly disclose the amount of corporate income tax paid by companies. If Republican House committee chairs refuse to give her proposals a hearing, she said she may hold "people's hearings" to build public support.

Republicans control the House 35-25 while the Senate is split 15-15.

Starr said he couldn't support much of labor's agenda. He praised President Bush's "Leave No Child Behind" plan, and said the solution to the state's problems starts with training teachers in a back-to-phonics approach to teaching reading in public schools. He also advocated limiting damages in malpractice suits, the creation of "medical savings accounts" for individuals, and a stripped-down public insurance plan for the uninsured that would work by charging participants $35 a month per family and then delivering discounts on health care procedures and a process for doing public service work at $10 an hour to pay down medical debts.

Devlin, who described himself as a moderate conservative Democrat on fiscal and economic issues, was more optimistic than his colleagues. Having a Democratic governor and shared power in the Senate, he said, will force the two parties to compromise, since neither can pass any law without support from the other party.

Participants broke out into workshops - on privatization, on health care, on lobbying skills and workplace mobilization.

January 17, 2003 issue

Home | About

© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.