March 21, 2008 Volume 109 Number 6

BOLI head Dan Gardner resigns; Brad Avakian to replace him

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

Oregon Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner announced March 12 that he will resign effective April 7 —15 months into his second four-year term of office. A day later, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski announced he will appoint State Sen. Brad Avakian (D-Bethany) to fill the vacancy.

Labor commissioner, one of six offices in Oregon that are elected statewide, serves as chief executive of Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI), a 106-employee $10-million-a-year agency. BOLI enforces state civil rights and wage and hour laws, administers the state’s prevailing wage law for public construction projects, and promotes apprenticeship training. So who’s in charge of the agency matters a good deal to the state’s unions.

Gardner gave the governor a short list of recommendations for his replacement, but Kulongoski, after scant consultation with labor leaders, swiftly settled on the choice of Avakian, a fellow attorney.

Avakian was in the middle of a four-way race for the Democratic nomination for Secretary of State. But he didn’t hesitate when offered the job of labor commissioner. An employee-side civil rights and workers’ compensation attorney, Avakian says at one time he knew every BOLI civil rights investigator by name.

In the 2007 legislative session, Avakian was one of four state senators to get the Oregon AFL-CIO’s highest ranking, and he was named an “all-star” by the Oregon Building and Construction Trades Council. Avakian’s appointment stands until the November election, and he says he intends to run for election.

Gardner said he loves the job of labor commissioner, but is resigning in order to take a legislative and policy job for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) in Washington, D.C. Gardner is a third-generation journeyman electrician and longtime IBEW member, and was vice president of Portland-headquartered IBEW Local 48 before he was elected labor commissioner. Now he’ll be one of two lobbyists in the Political/Legislative Affairs Department of IBEW, which represents 700,000 American workers and is one of Washington, D.C.’s most politically involved unions.

“It’s an exciting time to be in D.C.,” Gardner said. “The Democrats are in control of Congress, and we’ll most likely have a Democratic president.”

Gardner’s tenure at BOLI was a breath of fresh air for the labor movement after two terms of labor commissioner Jack Roberts, a Republican who downsized the agency and even proposed the elimination of the office he was elected to. Gardner on the other hand, with his background in a construction trades union, was a staunch ally of labor and a frequent presence at strike picket lines, union protest rallies and labor events of all kinds.

Gardner was offered the new job after meeting with IBEW officials last month while he was in Washington, D.C. for a meeting of the National Association of Government Labor Officials, which he serves as president.

“It was a hard decision to leave Oregon and to leave elected office, but it was an opportunity I just couldn’t pass up,” Gardner said. “I’m returning to my roots as an advocate for working people.”

Gardner said salary was also a factor in the decision, noting that the new job comes with a significant raise. All of Oregon’s statewide elected officials have had a pay freeze since 2001, and Gardner’s $72,000 salary as commissioner was less than that of 10 of his subordinates within BOLI. Gardner said he expects to testify in November when a special legislative commission looks at Oregon statewide elected official salaries.

Though he became a journeyman electrician in his native Illinois, Gardner, 49, has spent most of his working life in Oregon, first as a working electrician, and then as Local 48 vice president and three-term member of the Oregon House of Representatives representing Southeast Portland. He was elected House Minority Leader in 2000 by his Democratic colleagues. In 2002, he won election as labor commissioner, defeating three lesser-known candidates. BOLI commissioner is a non-partisan position, so the May primary serves either to narrow the field or determine the winner; Gardner clinched the race with more than 50 percent in the May primary. That year Gardner also served as one of the chief petitioners on the 2002 ballot measure that raised the Oregon minimum wage and pegged future annual increases to inflation. He ran unopposed for reelection in 2006.

Gardner said his proudest achievements at BOLI include requiring agricultural employers to give meal and rest breaks; helping resolve a five-year battle over when prevailing wage rates apply to projects that mix public and private funds; and funding pilot projects to expose high school students to career opportunities in the building trades.

Last month, Gardner considered running for Congress in the district being vacated by Democrat Darlene Hooley, but decided against it, citing family reasons. Gardner is divorced and his two high-school-aged children live in Oregon. The new job will require that he move to D.C., but Gardner said it will help him pay for college for his kids.

Before his public announcement, Gardner called several Oregon labor leaders, including Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain.

“I thought it made a lot of sense considering Dan’s background,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain gives Gardner credit for having rebuilt BOLI. Chamberlain said Gardner’s campaign for budget increases benefited from his credibility among lawmakers from his having served as minority leader.

BOLI’s budget rose slightly during Gardner’s tenure, but the agency still has 36 fewer staff than it had in 1996.

Gardner leaves some unfinished business, including further plans to expand apprenticeship opportunities. And last year he wasn’t able to pass a bill that would have returned Oregon overtime law to the eight-hour-day standard. In 1985, the Oregon Legislature changed the state overtime standard to a 40-hour week, which is the minimum under federal law.

At the press conference announcing his appointment, Avakian said he doesn’t yet have any specific plans for the agency. But in their remarks, both Avakian and Kulongoski stressed BOLI’s importance to economic development. Kulongoski said BOLI is vital to getting employers the highly-trained workers they’ll need in the future.

Gardner has often described himself as one of two union members in the country that hold statewide elected office; if that’s correct, then his resignation leaves just one, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, a member of the Screen Actors Guild.

As for IBEW, the union’s national office has a history of recruiting high-level union leaders from Oregon, including former IBEW Local 48 business manager Herman Teeple; his son, IBEW Local 48 business manager Greg Teeple; IBEW Local 48 business manager Keith Edwards; and IBEW Local 125 lobbyist Elizabeth Shuler.


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