Split in labor movement hits Oregon federation

At its Sept. 23 General Board meeting, the Oregon AFL-CIO continued to grapple with what to do about a split in the national labor movement.

In July, a group of the national federation’s largest unions left the AFL-CIO to form a new coalition called Change to Win. The breakaway unions included Service Employees International Union (SEIU), Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW). In September the hotel, restaurant and textile union UNITE HERE joined them, and more could follow.

In terms of workers represented and organizational dues paid, the disaffiliating unions represented about a third of the AFL-CIO at the national level, and more than that in some state and local AFL-CIO bodies. The departing unions contributed 40 percent of the Oregon AFL-CIO’s $1.1 million annual budget.

To deal with the lost revenue, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt proposed reducing payroll from the equivalent of nine full-time staff to six, refinancing the mortgage on the federation’s Salem office building, and raising dues by 20 cents per member per month on those unions that remain. Affiliated unions currently pay 61 cents per member per month. The state labor federation has had no dues increase for more 10 years.

The dues increase would make up half the amount that would be needed to replace the dues that were paid by the disaffiliating unions.

Nesbitt pointed out that all of the breakaway union locals in Oregon have stated that they would prefer to remain part of the state federation and local labor councils. And, national AFL-CIO President John Sweeney has offered a way for those unions to do so by entering into “Solidarity Charter” agreements at the local level. But the breakaway unions have objected to some of the terms of Sweeney’s proposal, and discussions are continuing over the terms of such charters, with a deadline of Oct. 15.

The proposed changes by the General Board will be voted on at the Oregon AFL-CIO’s biennial convention, scheduled for Oct. 16-18, at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland.

The proposed staff cuts include eliminating the organizing coordinator, cutting two clerical staff positions to part time, and making the secretary-treasurer an unpaid position. The federation’s current secretary-treasurer, Brad Witt, will resign effective mid-October. Witt accepted a job as a staff representative with UFCW Local 555, which left the AFL-CIO. Witt’s successor will be elected at the October convention.

At the Sept. 23 meeting, Board members were divided on the dues increase. Leaders of some unions spoke in support. Others were reluctant to commit to an increase while it’s still unknown how many unions will be leaving.

The day before the meeting, the Laborers Union, at its national leadership conference, voted to disaffiliate. And Board members said they’d heard rumors that the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades might join the breakaway group. Tim Carrier, business representative of Painters District Council 5, said he hadn’t heard word of a split, but the union had a national meeting of business managers scheduled. [At the Change to Win convention in St. Louis, rumors were circulating that the International Union of Operating Engineers would soon join the coalition.]

Several Board members said that adding to the dues burden could provoke other unions to disaffiliate. And at least one Board member voiced doubts about whether his union could afford to pay the increase.

Any dues increase would need to be approved at the convention. But Nesbitt found a way through the impasse: Ask convention delegates to give the General Board a one-time authorization to raise dues, with the proviso that they could lower them at any time if breakaway unions re-affiliate. Thus the decision on whether and how much to raise dues would be deferred until after the convention.

The General Board also heard a proposal on a special $2-per-member assessment for the 2006 election cycle. At the state level, the AFL-CIO will likely be involved in the governor’s race, the race for labor commissioner, and ballot measure campaigns. Union foe Bill Sizemore and Republican State Representative Jeff Kropf have filed anti-union initiatives that would abolish public sector unions or make it harder for public sector unions to collect funds for political purposes.

Nesbitt also floated a proposal to create a new position, Central Labor Council coordinator, which would help the state’s central labor councils. There was no immediate action on the proposal.

The Oregon AFL-CIO’s Sept. 23 General Board meeting concluded with a visit from Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, who entered the Sheet Metal Local 16 conference room in Northeast Portland with an entourage of children and state-licensed home child care providers. The group was there to watch him sign an executive order which directs the Oregon Department of Human Services to meet with the American Federaton of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) Oregon Council 75 to discuss issues of concern to home child care providers. Those include training and certification requirements, reimbursement rates, payment procedures, and health and safety conditions.

In recent months, a majority of the state’s 4,700 licensed home child care providers had signed cards naming AFSCME as their representative. But they’re not employees of the state, and won’t have a union contract. Instead AFSCME will represent them along the lines of a professional association. Home child care providers are either self-employed or are small businesses; without forming some organization, they find it hard to obtain affordable health coverage or a retirement plan. AFSCME may explore forming a health insurance and retirement pool. AFSCME has similar campaigns under way in a dozen states, but Oregon’s is the first to get this far.

On the advice of the national AFL-CIO, the state federation is holding off filling vacant Board positions held by SEIU and UFCW [The Teamsters had not been affiliated at the state level.] But there was some turnover on the General Board.

AFSCME staff person Stacy Chamberlain, daughter of former Fire Fighters President Tom Chamberlain, will represent the Clatsop-Tillamook Central Labor Council; Mike Smith replaced Del Brown as the representative of Sheet Metal Workers Local 16; Mike Richards replaced Debbie Sluyter as the representative of Office and Professional Employees Local 11; and Roger Patocka replaced Tony Cervantes as the representative of United Auto Workers Local 492.

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