October 20, 2006 Volume 107 Number 20

Labor says Kulongoski best bet for working people

Following a relatively quiet primary, labor unions have stepped up the pace to re-elect Ted Kulongoski as governor of Oregon.

On Oct. 14 several hundred union members gathered at Kulongoski’s campaign headquarters in Northeast Portland to meet the governor and later fan out across the city to remind people to cast their ballots before 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Nov. 7. Ballots will be mailed starting Oct. 23.

“It’s a question of ‘which side are you on?’ If it’s the rich getting richer ... that’s the other guy,” said Bill Lucy, international secretary-treasurer of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, to a sea of green AFSCME T-shirts.

Also joining Kulongoski and Lucy at the rally were U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain, and Tina Kotek, a candidate for the Oregon House of Representatives.

“It’s all about getting our people to vote,” said Chamberlain. “What we do will make the difference in wins and losses. Turnout is everything.”

Kulongoski has endorsements from virtually every labor organization in the state, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, the Oregon Machinists Council, Oregon AFSCME Council 75, the Fire Fighters, and the Columbia River District of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, to name some.

Change to Win labor federation unions, such as United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, Teamsters Joint Council 37, Service Employees Locals 503 and 49, and the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, also are supporting Kulongoski.

The independent Oregon State Police Officers Association and the Oregon Education Association are on board for the incumbent governor as well.

Chamberlain said Republican challenger Ron Saxton is trying to buy his way to the governor’s office. “He’s got money from big oil and drug companies, and a good old boy half-million-dollar club,” Chamberlain said. “We know who will run this state (if Saxton is elected).”

Kulongoski thanked the crowd for turning out on a Saturday morning. “This will make the difference. It’s why we will win,” he said.

Now through election day, union members will be reaching out to colleagues at work and at home. The Oregon AFL-CIO has hired crews to make phone calls to union households, and Working America, a “community affiliate” of the AFL-CIO, which has 30,000 members in Oregon, is involved. Working America is made up primarily of middle-income workers who sympathize with labor’s goals but do not belong to a union.

Many building trades union members are handbilling construction sites before and after work to remind workers to vote. “I talk to both the union and nonunion workers,” said Jim Anderson, president of Operating Engineers Local 701. “I let the nonunion guys know that if Ron Saxton is elected governor, he’ll come after state prevailing wage laws — and that will affect their pocketbooks.”

Building trades union leaders point to a series of large public works projects that Kulongoski helped shepherd through the Legislature as a key reason for their endorsement.

One bill introduced by Kulongoski put the state to work fixing bridges using $2 billion in bonds that will be repaid with an increase in the drivers’ license fee. Another dedicated $100 million in lottery-backed bonds for improvements to railroads, airports and other non-highway projects. A higher education construction bill put $400 million of money into expansion at university campuses. All those amounts will be spent over a period of years.

Kulongoski also stuck by building trades unions in behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Warm Springs Tribe over a proposed casino in Cascade Locks: The governor’s influence helped get the tribe to commit to build the casino with union labor if it wins federal approval for an off-reservation casino.

Don Loving, communications director for Oregon AFSCME Council 75, said the the governor’s race is their top priority because he is, after all, the ultimate boss for most AFSCME members. “There’s still some frustration over the PERS issue, and we’re continuing with litigation,” Loving said, referring to Kulongoski’s signing of a bill that cut pension benefits for public employees. “But we have to have some perspective: While this governor did modify PERS, the other fellow wants to eliminate it.”

The Oregon Supreme Court has since struck down part of the changes to PERS on the grounds that it violated a union contract the state had bargained with its employees.

In an interview with the NW Labor Press during the Democratic primary election, Kulongoski defended his shift on PERS as a tough decision he had to make if he was to protect government services from cuts and protect public employees from plans by some Republican leaders to terminate their defined benefit pension and turn it into a 401(k).

While public employees may disagree with the PERS reforms, Joe DiNicola, a corporate tax auditor who serves as president of SEIU Local 503, points out on that union’s Web site that Kulongoski’s actions pale when compared to what Saxton says he would do. “If elected, Saxton will dismantle the services Oregonians rely on,” DiNicola said. “When it comes to affordable health care, education for our children, economic fairness and workers’ rights, Ron Saxton plans to send Oregon backwards.”

Kulongoski is not bashful describing himself as a “labor Democrat.” At a Pillars of Oregon business dinner earlier this year, the former Teamster and Steelworker opened his remarks by saying just that.

“I am and always will be a labor Democrat,” Kulongoski later told the NW Labor Press.

It was Kulongoski who wrote the 1973 law that allowed public employees to unionize: As a Eugene labor lawyer, he was asked to write the Oregon Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, which passed a Democratic Legislature and was signed by Republican Governor Tom McCall.

From 1975 through 1981, Kulongoski served four terms in the Oregon Legislature, where he compiled a 96 percent Committee on Political Education (COPE) voting record as tracked by the Oregon AFL-CIO.

He has also served the state as attorney general, as the state insurance commissioner and as a justice on the Oregon Supreme Court.

As governor, he was one of the first to sign on to the Employee Free Choice Act, a legislative proposal pending in Congress that calls for card-check elections and employer neutrality during organizing campaigns.

He rallied with union members when they called on the National Labor Relations Board to hold hearings before ruling on three cases affecting how workers are classified as supervisors.

He pledged to veto a bill that would have undermined Oregon’s minimum wage for tipped employees.

Recent polls indicate the election will be a close one. A national AFL-CIO poll of union households showed Kulongoski with a 45-27 percent lead over Saxton, with the remainder undecided. That’s an unusually low number for union households.

There is no magic formula for winning this election. The key to victory is voter turnout. “If union members and their families vote, we will win — it’s that simple,” Chamberlain said.

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