Tom Chamberlain to follow Nesbitt as president of Oregon AFL-CIO

Tom Chamberlain, newly-appointed president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, says he’s not going to try to be Tim Nesbitt, his predecessor. But he is going to follow the advice of his favorite coach, his wife: “Never change a winning game, and always change a losing game.”

Nesbitt coached three seasons of winning games at the Oregon AFL-CIO, and Chamberlain, who described himself as a beat-up old athlete, says he’s not about to change the game plan.

Chamberlain, 51, got his start in organized labor as a firefighter at the City of Portland. After graduating Portland’s Roosevelt High School in 1972, he served a stint in the U.S. Air Force in Biloxi, Mississippi before returning to Portland and a job at the Portland Fire Bureau in 1977. At a time when now-Portland City Commissioner Randy Leonard was president of Portland Fire Fighters Local 43, Chamberlain was recruited to run for the local’s executive board. He was elected the local’s secretary-treasurer in 1996. By this time, he’d become an active member-lobbyist in Salem, and to continue that work full-time, he was elected vice president and then president of the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council. In 1998, he was elected as Leonard’s successor as president of Local 43 — the Fire Fighters’ biggest Oregon local. He was re-elected once, but lost re-election in December 2003. Nesbitt then hired him as part-time organizing director at the Oregon AFL-CIO, where he served briefly before going to work as labor liaison for Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski.

As such, he served as an advocate for the governor to take positions on farm workers rights, defense of the minimum wage, and endorsement of the Employee Free Choice Act. He also served as a middleman between the governor and the union bargaining teams that represented the state’s workers.

“Being on that side of the table is one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had,” Chamberlain said.

In late September, Nesbitt approached him about becoming president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. Nesbitt planned to resign to pursue other opportunities, and had two years remaining on his four-year term; his replacement would be chosen by the state federation’s Executive Board at its Oct. 18 post-convention meeting.

Nesbitt’s backing for the Oregon AFL-CIO’s top position prompted Chamberlain to shut down his campaign for Multnomah County chair against incumbent Diane Linn.

“If there’s a choice between running for office and representing working people, there’s no question for me which I choose,” Chamberlain told the Northwest Labor Press.

“Fighting for working people is my life’s work. It’s what I want to do.”

Chamberlain said he grew up in an Irish Catholic household where “the difference between cold cereal for breakfast and cold cereal for dinner was a union job.” His father, who had a ninth-grade education, was able to support his family on union wages, first as a Teamster truck driver for Freightliner, then as a bus driver represented by Amalgamated Transit Union, and finally, as a postal worker.

Chamberlain’s brother is vice president of the Portland Police Association; his wife, a former teacher, was a member of the Oregon Education Association. His sister and son are members of American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees; his daughter, an attorney, works for AFSCME and is the newly-installed representative to the Oregon AFL-CIO from the Clatsop-Tillamook Central Labor Council.

Political consultant Mark Wiener, who has known Chamberlain since before he succeeded Leonard, was working on his county chair campaign until the call from Nesbitt. Wiener described Chamberlain as good at finding solutions to problems everyone else has thrown their hands up on.

“He has an ability to bring people who agree on almost nothing together to come up with a solution, but at the same time, he has some bedrock values he’s never going to compromise.”

Nesbitt too, described Chamberlain as a good consensus builder.

“I’ve seen him as president of Portland Fire Fighters, and based on reports from others, he always worked exceptionally well with others in the city. Now he has the experience of having worked in the governor’s office as a senior staff person, which sharpens his understanding of the political process.”

Leonard, in his welcome to the Oregon AFL-CIO convention, called Chamberlain “my secret weapon” and added, “you will not be disappointed.”

In the end, no one else stepped forward as a candidate, and Chamberlain was appointed by acclamation. He will take over Nov. 18. “What [Tim Nesbitt] leaves me is one of the premier labor organizations in the country,” he said.

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