A labor guide to the governor's race
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
2006 is a year Oregonians choose their next governor, and the state’s unions have tried to offer some guidance on which of the candidates is the best friend to working people and union members.
Trouble is, they don’t agree. All three Democratic candidates — Ted Kulongoski, Jim Hill and Peter Sorenson — have at least one union endorsement, as does GOP candidate Kevin Mannix.
So the Northwest Labor Press has undertaken to look at the records and promises of each candidate to help union voters make a decision.
Ballots have been mailed out and are due May 16. The deadline to register to vote or change party registration has passed for this primary. Only Democrats can vote to choose which Democrat will run in November, and only Republicans get to pick the Republican nominee.
In their endorsement decisions, unions focused on economic issues. Briefly, here are some of the things that matter to labor politically:
Ted Kulongoski, the current governor, has the most union endorsements of any candidate: Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council and its affiliates, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the Oregon Machinists Council, Teamsters Joint Council 37, Oregon State Police Officers Association, Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, and the Columbia River District of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.
But notably, the governor doesn’t have endorsements from any of the major public employees unions, nor of the Oregon AFL-CIO, despite the fact that his former labor liaison Tom Chamberlain is the federation’s president.
Above all, that’s because public employees feel he broke a campaign promise to protect their pensions from Republican-led proposals to cut them. In response to stock market losses that caused the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) to be underfunded, Kulongoski supported and signed a law cutting pension benefits for new and existing public employees. The Oregon Supreme Court has since struck down part of that change, as the state’s lawyers said it would, on the grounds that it violated a union contract the state had bargained with its employees. The stock market has also partially recovered, which has reduced the system’s unfunded liability.
Kulongoski defends 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).
Talk to labor folks and you’ll hear other complaints: He had a no-show reputation in the Legislature, undertook few initiatives and dodged controversy.
There are exceptions to this chorus. Most building trades union leaders are highly enthusiastic about Kulongoski, who they say did everything they asked him to. In particular, Kulongoski came through on a series of massive public- works projects that will put building trades union members at work for years to come: 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 and operate the casino with union labor if it wins federal approval for an off-reservation casino.
Kulongoski was the clear labor favorite four years ago, and for the same reason some loyalists are sticking by him now: Of the contestants, he has by far the longest, most solid relationship with organized labor, going back more than three decades.
“I am and always will be a labor Democrat,” Kulongoski told a gathering of labor leaders at a December breakfast.
At one time he was a member of the Teamsters in St. Louis, Missouri.
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, and his votes were in accord with the Oregon AFL-CIO 96 percent of the time.
In the late 1980s and early ‘90s, Kulongoski was the state insurance commissioner, and worked with then-Governor Neil Goldschmidt on a series of controversial changes in the state’s workers’ compensation system. The changes made it harder for workers to prove that their medical conditions were work-related, and limited the fees workers’ compensation attorneys could receive. With those changes, the amounts employers pay for workers’ compensation insurance have decreased, even though medical costs have gone up.
As governor, he made it easier for state workers to unionize in some instances. At the Department of Fish and Wildlife and the Department of Housing and Community Services, a governor’s executive order permitted workers to unionize on the basis of signed union authorization cards rather than through a union election. At the Oregon Lottery, however, a late decision that the agency had to follow similar rules unraveled on a technicality. The Service Employees International Union opted to go the route of a union election, which is scheduled this month.
After some prodding from the Oregon AFL-CIO, he pledged to veto a bill that would have undermined Oregon’s minimum wage for tipped employees.
His record of supporting other union struggles was spotty, however. The governor was not seen on any union picket lines. After much pleading by the union, Kulongoski intervened in an SEIU dispute at the Parry Center for Children, using the the threat of lost state contract to pressure management to sign a deal acceptable to the union. But he was criticized for it by opponents of labor. Later, when his appointees at the Lane Transit District provoked a strike in Eugene and Springfield, the governor refused appeals for help from Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757. And when a teacher strike in Sandy, Ore., threatened to drag on, he proposed a settlement that was rejected by both sides. The teachers union later settled on more favorable terms than the governor had proposed.
The centerpiece of Kulongoski’s campaign for re-election is his jobs record.
“Every night I go to bed I’m always thinking, ‘How can I create more jobs for the people of this state?” Kulongoski told delegates at the September 2005 convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO.
Kulongoski says he inherited a severe recession and 7 percent unemployment, and worked to turn around Oregon’s economy by creating jobs. Asked to elaborate, he acknowledges that his method of creating jobs was primarily wooing out-of-state corporations to locate in Oregon, using various incentives.
Jim Hill has the endorsement of SEIU, the Oregon State Fire Fighters Council, and the Oregon School Employees Association.
Hill served as a state legislator from 1983 to 1993, where his votes earned an 88 percent rating by the Oregon AFL-CIO. Hill then served as state treasurer from 1993 to 2001. In his legislative and treasurer races, he ran with union endorsements.
He ran for governor four years ago, and came in second in the Democratic primary that Kulongoski won.
Like Kulongoski, Hill is quick to mention his humble origins. Kulongoski was raised in an orphanage; Hill was the son of sharecroppers. Hill is less forthcoming about his career in the investment world. Since leaving office as treasurer, he says he’s worked to connect people who have money to invest with asset management firms. But he declined to tell the Labor Press the names of any firms he’s worked with.
Hill points out that Oregon’s fund portfolios increased in value tremendously during his time as treasurer. But then so did most states’, thanks to the run-up in stock prices.
As treasurer, Hill’s interest was in democratizing finance. Where possible, he tried to use state investments to put Oregonians to work, creating the Oregon Growth Account, for example. And he led projects to spread “financial literacy” to working people.
He also met with representatives of the national AFL-CIO to advise them on how to put union trust funds on the side of union workers.
And he won passage of a bill to prevent Oregon treasurers from working in the finance industry until at least two years after leaving office.
In his second run for governor, Hill is highly critical of Kulongoski, saying he only entered the race because of the governor’s poor record.
Hill faults the governor for breaking his word on PERS, though he doesn’t say what if anything he might have done to address the unfunded liability.
Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson has just one union endorsement, that of American Federation of Teachers Local 3544, which represents graduate teaching and research fellows at University of Oregon. But he did garner the most votes of the Oregon Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, although it wasn’t enough to win an endorsement.
And his record in Lane County has the praise of local union officials like Lane County Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer Pat Riggs-Henson.
“He understands working families,” says Riggs-Henson, who once served with Sorenson on the board of Lane Community College. “As a county commissioner, he has been the workers’ friend.”
Sorenson supported a Eugene living wage ordinance that required businesses with public contracts to pay decent wages and benefits. And he backed a symbolic ordinance supporting workers’ right to organize. When Eugene city workers were in negotiations, he attended union rallies to show support. At the county, he helped set a tone of cooperation with unions such that the most recent contract negotiations took just a day and a half to complete.
He has had union endorsements in his local races. He also earned a 90 percent rating from the Oregon AFL-CIO for his votes in the 1995 Oregon Senate.
Sorenson is the only one of the three Democrats without experience in statewide elected office, but he has detailed plans and proposals if elected.
He proposes to extend the concept of paying the prevailing wage to all businesses with state contracts, not just those in the construction field.
He says he supports a set of union-backed reforms to rein in health care costs; in addition, he proposes that a state investment of $50 million would get federal matching funds, enough to cover the 177,000 Oregon children who are uninsured. And he wants to build nutrition, exercise, smoking cessation into state policy.
The centerpiece of Sorenson’s campaign is taxes: Sorenson says corporations aren’t paying their fair share, and criticizes the governor for allowing severe state budget cuts and failing to find new sources of funding. Kulongoski’s reply is that he supported a bill passed by the Legislature that eliminated some of the cuts with a temporary increase in individual and corporate taxes, but that bill was shot down by Oregon voters. Sorenson says that’s because working people feel they’re paying enough already, and argues that a stand-alone increase on corporate taxes might have passed. Corporations used to shoulder 18 percent of the state’s tax burden; now it’s 5 percent. Sorenson wants to return to the former, and says that alone would be enough to guarantee adequate funding for schools and health care.
As for the Republican candidates for governor, only former state lawmaker Kevin Mannix has a union endorsement — from the Oregon School Employees Association. Mannix was the only Republican to actually seek union support. He has by far the best labor voting record of the Republican candidates: The Oregon AFL-CIO rates his votes 71 percent “right,” though much of that dates from the time before he switched parties. Mannix’s voting record gradually worsened from the 100 percent he rated in the 1989 legislative session to 55 percent in 1995. When he went back to the Legislature as a Republican in 1999, his votes got a 14 percent rating from the state labor federation.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.