February 15, 2008 Volume 109 Number 4

OSEA joins American Federation of Teachers

The independent Oregon School Employees Association announced Feb. 5 it will become an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers.

Because AFT is an affiliate of the AFL-CIO, the addition of OSEA means 20,000 more union-represented workers will be under the umbrella of the Oregon AFL-CIO. That brings the total membership of the state labor federation to about 110,000 workers (and that’s not counting the open-to-all Working America community organization, which is now 65,000-strong).

AFT-Oregon represents approximately 12,500 school employees and health care professionals. The national union has 850,000 members.

Dating back to 1996, when OSEA and AFT-Oregon signed a “no-raid” mutual assistance agreement, the two organizations have developed a close relationship.

OSEA staff have taken part in AFT training sessions at the AFL-CIO’s National Labor College George Meany Campus in Silver Spring, Maryland. And last year, the OSEA Board passed a resolution that laid the groundwork for formal affiliation with AFT. OSEA members approved the affiliation proposal by a five-to-one margin in mail ballots counted Feb. 5 by the League of Women Voters.

“This is going to make us stronger,” explained OSEA president Merlene Martin.

OSEA, founded in 1938 by a group of school janitors in Lane County, today represents 20,000 workers in 139 bargaining units; 16,000 of them are full-fledged members, while about 4,000 are non-members who pay their “fair share” of the cost of union representation. OSEA members include employees of school districts, community colleges, education service districts, Head Start agencies, libraries, and park and recreation districts. For the most part, they are so-called “classified employees” — school support staff in occupational classifications that aren’t required to hold teaching certification. They include secretaries, bookkeepers and payroll and accounting clerks; custodians; maintenance workers; groundskeepers; bus drivers; special education, instructional, and library assistants; food service workers; school nurses; and many other specializations.

AFT-Oregon meanwhile represents many of the same kinds of workers, plus some higher ed teaching faculty and graduate assistants, and nurses and health professionals.

In the late 1990s, OSEA discussed affiliation with AFT and with several other unions, including the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), the American Federation of State, County, & Municipal Employees (AFSCME), and the National Education Association (NEA).

OSEA’s decision to affiliate comes after two-and-a-half years of internal discussion. AFT has a reputation for autonomy, Martin said, with locals allowed wide latitude to set their own direction. Martin said that was important to OSEA members. With this affiliation, OSEA becomes in effect a second statewide local of AFT; it will keep its own name, identity and structure, including 40 staff, eight field offices and its headquarters in Salem. It will be AFT’s fifth-largest local, and the largest on the West Coast.

“This is good for the movement,” said Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain. “It helps OSEA members build strength in their political program and in their organizing program.”


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