Union-backed political party wins official ballot status in Oregon

As of June 27, Oregon has a new minor political party. The Oregon Working Families Party, brought to life by eight labor organizations and several allied community groups, is meant to steer politics back to breadbasket issues.

Supporters turned in about 28,000 signatures in mid-June, and on June 28. Oregon Secretary of State Bill Bradbury determined they’d exceeded the 18,908 signatures required to earn minor party ballot status.

That means the Oregon Working Families Party can run its own candidates — in statewide and legislative races — as early as the November 2006 election.

But it’s unlikely to do so this year. The party’s game plan was never to be a “spoiler,” running candidates that might siphon votes from “lesser-of-two-evils” candidates and helping elect the greater.

Instead, Working Families has been wedded from the get-go to bringing “fusion voting” to Oregon, either in the Legislature or by ballot measure. Under fusion voting, parties can use their ballot line to endorse other parties’ candidates. For example, voters who agree with the Working Families platform could vote for Democrat or Republican candidates endorsed by the party — on the Working Families ballot line. If votes on the Working Families ballot line are greater than the margin of victory, and help elect a candidate, the victor would have to remember working families while in office. Or so the thinking goes.

Fusion voting used to be the norm everywhere. It remains the law in New York and several other states.

The Oregon Working Families Party is modeled on a union-backed New York party of the same name.

Union leaders in the state of Washington are also trying to form a Working Families party, and are working to get fusion voting by ballot initiative in the November 2007 election.

Oregon supporters have already filed such a ballot measure, which is approved to circulate, but they plan first to try to persuade the 2007 Oregon Legislature to restore fusion voting. If legislators fail to do so, the Oregon Working Families Party would likely take it to voters in 2008.

While the Oregon Working Families Party won’t run its own candidates this year, it may end up mobilizing support for candidates.

Who and what to support, as well as the new party’s structure, leadership, platform and priorities, will be determined at a founding convention in August.

Up to now, the effort has been led by Barbara Dudley, former assistant director for strategic campaigns at the national AFL-CIO, and Tim Nesbitt, former president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, with assistance from the New York party and a core of Oregon labor leaders. So far, organizations to have formally backed the effort include American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75; Communications Workers of America Local 7901; the Lane County Labor Council; Teamsters Local 206; Operating Engineers Local 701; International Longshore and Warehouse Union; Oregon Federation of Nurses and Health Professionals; and United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555; plus the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), Oregon Fair Trade Coalition and Alliance for Democracy.

Union volunteers gathered many of the signatures needed to qualify, but the biggest share was collected by door-to-door canvassers who were already in the field working for ACORN and Working America, the AFL-CIO’s individual affiliate program.

Sponsors of the Oregon Working Families Party say it will focus on a short list of pocketbook issues that affect the family budgets of all Oregonians, including affordable health care, family wage jobs, better schools, wider access to community colleges, universities and job training programs, and secure retirement benefits. 

Nesbitt said a statewide poll conducted in February found that 72 percent of Oregon voters find the idea of a Working Families Party appealing, while 20 percent find it unappealing.

“Our issues have broad appeal,” Nesbitt said, “and the major parties would be wise to work with us to solve the problems that are squeezing family budgets.”