October 20, 2006 Volume 107 Number 20

Unions working cooperatively on most Oregon legislative races

While structurally more divided than in previous election years, Oregon unions are still working cooperatively on most state electoral contests.

In the last few years, seven unions — Carpenters, Service Employees, Teamsters, United Food and Commercial Workers, Laborers, UNITE HERE and the United Farm Workers — have left the national AFL-CIO and joined in a new federation, Change to Win. Just two Change to Win unions remain affiliated with the Oregon AFL-CIO under temporary “solidarity charters” — UNITE HERE and several Laborers locals.

Still, the Oregon AFL-CIO continues to serve as coordinating body for its affiliates’ political efforts. Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain said that after getting off to a slow start, a campaign of mailings, phone banks and work site leaflet distribution is under way, supporting labor-endorsed candidates and ballot measures.

As for the state Change To Win federation, it has issued no endorsements in Oregon races, but is coordinating joint political efforts like joint canvasses, for candidates all affiliates agree on. SEIU Local 503 official Rich Peppers said the endorsements overlap 95 percent.

Each of the two state federations represents about 90,000 members in affiliated unions.

While virtually every union sees politics as a legitimate part of representing members’ interests, some unions are more focused on politics than others. The largest unions maintain full-time lobbyists and political directors and devote substantial resources to politics.

Chamberlain can quickly cite the Oregon labor organizations with the biggest political efforts: the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC), Fire Fighters, the Oregon Education Association, the Oregon Nurses Association and SEIU. In other words, the largest public employee unions, the biggest nurses union, and the influential bloc of unions in the construction industry.

All the state’s unions favor incumbent Governor Ted Kulongoski over Republican challenger Ron Saxton. Saxton didn’t seek union endorsements, and is expected to be actively hostile to unions if elected.

In state legislative races, however, there are some differences among unions.

The Oregon AFL-CIO keeps the most detailed tracking of votes, and tends to evaluate politicians on issues of broad importance to working people. It uses those records, known as COPE ratings (Committee on Political Education), as part of its decision-making on who to endorse. It also uses a candidate questionnaire, though not all endorsed candidates filled one out; Chamberlain said those who didn’t fill it out at least gave oral commitments to supporting expanded rights to organize. Endorsement decisions are made by COPE. The COPE board is comprised of members of the General Board. The General Board consists of AFL-CIO Executive Board members, delegates from the 12 regional central labor councils, and one representative of each affiliated international union (including Change to Win locals with Solidarity Charters) which does not have a representative on the Executive Board. COPE actions require a two-thirds majority of the votes cast.

The Oregon AFL-CIO made endorsements in 13 of 15 Senate races and 37 of 60 house races. See www.oraflcio.org for the complete list.

Basically, the state labor federation endorsed all incumbent Democrats in the House and Senate, plus a handful of Democratic candidates running for open seats or against Republican incumbents, plus four incumbent Republicans: Albany Senator Frank Morse, and in the House, Vicki Berger of Monmouth, Scott Bruun of West Linn, and Bob Jenson of Pendleton. While the Republicans all had much lower COPE ratings than any Democrat, Chamberlain said they were candidates with whom affiliates such as OSBCTC, AFSCME, or ONA had developed a working relationship with, potentially valuable connections given past Republican majorities in the Oregon House.

And while most of the AFL-CIO efforts are focused on the governor’s race and ballot measure campaigns, in legislative races it has paid closest attention to three Democrats in close races. They include Larry Galizio for House District 3 in Tigard; Chuck Riley for House District 29 in Forest Grove; and David Edwards for House District 30 in Hillsboro.

Within the AFL-CIO, AFSCME, ONA, and the Building Trades (OSBCTC) maintain independent approaches to politics.

Oregon AFSCME invites members to take part in candidate interviews and then make recommendations to its Political Action Committee, members of which are appointed by AFSCME’s elected president. The PAC in turn, makes recommendations to the Oregon AFSCME Council’s Executive Board, elected at biennial conventions, which makes the final decision. Generally, any incumbent state legislator who scores an 80 percent or higher voting record on AFSCME issues the previous legislative session earns an automatic endorsement and is not required to go through the interview process. [See Oregon AFSCME endorsements]

An exception to that occurred this year with State Rep. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), who had an 8-2 AFSCME voting record in the 2005 session. Thatcher agreed to be listed as one of the co-sponsors of a statewide ballot measure that would restrict union dues collections. Because of that, the PAC decided to interview both Thatcher and her House District 25 opponent, Chuck Lee, and eventually endorsed Lee over Thatcher. The Oregon AFL-CIO and OSBCTC are also backing Lee, while the ONA, alone among unions, is endorsing Thatcher.

The OSBCTC political effort is advised by Pac/West Communications, a lobby and communications firm headed by former Republican legislator Paul Phillips. With help from Pac/West, the Building Trades Council has developed friendly relationships with some Republican legislators, who back the building trades unions on issues like licensing, apprenticeship, defense of the prevailing wage, and public investment in infrastructure.

One prominent race where unions split was on Oregon House Speaker Karen Minnis (R-Fairview). The Oregon AFL-CIO rated her 36 percent for her votes last year — the lowest of any legislator — and this year voted to endorse her opponent, Rob Brading. But AFSCME and OSBCTC endorsed Minnis.

“We got heat for the Minnis endorsement,” acknowledges Don Loving, Oregon AFSCME communications director. “But she walked our picket line in 1999 at the Columbia River Correctional Institution, when our people were on strike.”

Also, Minnis had a 5-2 record on bills AFSCME prioritized in the 2005 legislative session.

As for SEIU, the former AFL-CIO affiliate stayed out of some races where the Oregon AFL-CIO made endorsements, and endorsed some candidates in races the Oregon AFL-CIO stayed out of. In one race, they’re on opposite sides: For House District 37 in West Linn, SEIU is backing Democrat Bev Backa while the Oregon AFL-CIO backs incumbent Republican Scott Bruun. [SEIU endorsements here and here.]

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