September 18, 2009 Volume 110 Number 18

LERC professor will be adviser to U.S. House labor panel

Gordon Lafer, assistant professor at the Labor Education and Research Center (LERC) at the University of Oregon, is moving to Washington, D.C., to work as senior labor policy adviser for the U.S. House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and Labor. The job starts Sept. 21; Lafer will take a one-year leave of absence from the UO.

The committee is responsible for laws on labor, health care, job training, and retirement security for workers. Lafer will provide the committee with analysis and advice on labor law legislation, including the Employee Free Choice Act, labor’s top priority bill in Congress.

Besides the Employee Free Choice Act, Lafer said he will be working on a bill called the RESPECT Act (Re-Empowerment of Skilled and Professional Employees and Construction Trades Workers), which would undo a Bush-era National Labor Relations Board decision that took away union rights from charge nurses, construction foremen and other workers who do some limited amount of supervising.

He’ll work on the guestworker provisions of the upcoming immigration reform bill — spelling out what rights guest workers should have, and under what conditions companies should be allowed to bring in guest workers. He’ll be working on federal legislation aimed at extending union rights to police and firefighters in states where they don’t have those rights. He will also work on proposals to attach labor conditions to federal green jobs initiatives and a second round of stimulus spending.

“I feel like if there’s ever a time when it should be possible to move legislation that helps workers, this should be it,” Lafer told the Labor Press.

Lafer, 49, joined LERC faculty in 1997, two years after earning a PhD in political science from Yale University.

He soon became known in the local and national labor movement as LERC’s go-to person for research. He has done work for unions around the country on strategic planning and contract campaigns, including Las Vegas building trades unions, longshore unions in Hawaii and on the East Coast and Gulf Coast, and Bay Area locals of the United Food and Commercial Workers. He helped Oregon building trades unions with technical questions about prevailing wage calculations, researched nursing shortages for Oregon Nurses Association, conducted a salary survey for an engineering employee association, and co-authored two studies on contracting out school support services — which helped Oregon School Employees Association resist privatization.

In 2002, he published “Job Training Charade,” a book criticizing politicians’ promotion of job training as the answer to unemployment and job-killing trade treaties like NAFTA.

In recent years, Lafer researched and wrote several influential studies of the failings of U.S. labor law for the union-backed group American Rights at Work. That led to invitations to train congressional staffers and testify about the Employee Free Choice Act at hearings in the U.S. House and Senate, including the House Education and Labor Committee, whose general counsel recruited him to the new job.

Joining Lafer in the move to DC are his partner Rachel Kirtner and their three-year-old daughter Merav. Kirtner is a labor attorney and union organizer who was working with the American Federation of Teachers to help UO faculty unionize. Lafer said they’ve leased a place 12 blocks from the Capitol, and are renting out their home in Eugene with an eye to returning.

“Obviously we will miss Gordon’s skills and talents for the year he’s gone,” said LERC director Bob Bussel. “But this is an opportunity for him to do really good work on major pieces of legislation that will benefit the union movement and working people.”

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