January 1, 2010 Volume 111 Number 1

Year in review: 2009 in labor

New Year’s Day at the Northwest Labor Press is a chance to look back on — and update — some of the stories we reported in 2009.

2009 was a difficult year, with unemployment topping 12 percent in Oregon, union pension funds cutting back extras, and local union workers agreeing to wage freezes or concessions in contract votes. Among local public sector unions, wage freezes began with 164 Vancouver firefighters two days before 2009 began, and continued with 230 City of Vancouver workers in four other unions. In March, 2,700 Multnomah County workers agreed to a wage freeze in order to minimize layoffs. And in July, the two largest state public employee unions in Oregon agreed to pay freezes and unpaid furlough days in new two-year contracts covering 21,500 workers. A new five-year contract approved in July for 700 workers at Northwest Natural Gas also had provisions for furloughs, though it contained annual raises of 1 to 3 percent. And in September, a contract covering up to 6,000 members of the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters included a $4.86 an hour wage cut on smaller privately funded construction projects, to shore up union contractors facing fierce competition in a major construction downturn.

At the Freightliner truck factory in Portland, it was a roller coaster year. Parent company Daimler announced in January that it would close the plant in June 2010 when the Machinists union contract expires, but rescinded that plan in September.

In February, the Teamsters offered an unconditional return to work at Oak Harbor Freight Lines, where about 600 Teamster drivers and warehouse workers had been on strike since September 2008. But the company refused to return 13 workers it accused of picket line misconduct. Two other Oak Harbor union supporters were fired after the return to work. A wave of decertification attempts at different Oak Harbor locations was dismissed by the National Labor Relations Board in March, but since then the dispute has continued in a kind of legal limbo: The employer technically recognizes the union, but workers have been without a union contract since October 2007. Union-filed unfair labor practice charges continue to work their way through the NLRB’s bureaucratic processes.

In March, perennial union foe Bill Sizemore was banned from any role in a tax-deductible non-profit charity by a judge’s order. Then in October, he faced a new racketeering lawsuit filed by two teachers unions, with Nevada millionaire Loren Parks as co-defendant. And revelations in a still-unfinished 10-year-old racketeering lawsuit led the State of Oregon to indict him and his wife in November for felony tax evasion.

The dream of a memorial to workers killed on the job was realized in April with the official unveiling of the Fallen Workers Memorial on the Capitol Mall in Salem.

In April, Laurelhurst Village nursing home in Southeast Portland fired pro-union worker Elizabeth Lehr, days after she got involved in a union campaign by Service Employees International Union Local 503. But in July the company paid an undisclosed amount to settle her unfair labor practice charge, and by November, parent company Farmington Centers had agreed to recognize the union as representative of its 144 workers.

In July, Iron Workers Local 516 and Oregon Iron Works gained national attention when they unveiled the first streetcar made in America since 1951. With a resurgence of streetcars in the United States, the Clackamas-based company has orders to build more streetcars for cities throughout the country.

Fred Meyer, one of the area’s largest union employers, came under increasing criticism both from its own employees’ union, (United Food & Commercial Workers Local 555), and local building trades unions angered at being shut out of a major chain-wide remodeling project. From summer onward, building trades leaders led demonstrations outside Fred Meyer stores, even as a Spokane UFCW local blanketed Portland with lawn signs and bus bench ads taking aim at the company for firing cashiers for first-offense cash handling mistakes. In October, a manager at a Fred Meyer store in Hillsboro called police, and three UFCW Local 555 representatives, including union President Dan Clay, were arrested for trespass. Their court date is in January. In December, Fred Meyer was declared the local private sector “Grinch of the Year,” by Portland Jobs With Justice. Look for the dispute to continue into 2010 as Local 555 continues to bargain successor agreements to the ones that expired in July 2008 for 5,300 workers, and as building trades-affiliated health trusts close down deals with Kroger pharmacy.

Politically, the high point for labor was the inauguration of Democratic President Barack Obama in January. Top labor leaders were suddenly frequent White House guests after eight years of near-total isolation from the nation’s chief executive. Also sworn in was labor ally Jeff Merkley, who replaced Republican Gordon Smith as Oregon’s junior U.S. Senator. In February, the Democratic-majority Congress passed economic stimulus legislation that carried a $787 billion price tag. But Congress was still wrangling over health care reform as the year ended, and had yet to deliver on labor’s top priority — the Employee Free Choice Act — or complete work on other pressing issues like climate change and reform of the financial system.

In the State of Washington, top Democrats elected with labor’s help caved to business pressure and refused to allow a vote on a workers’ rights bill. Washington Governor Chris Gregoire, House Speaker Frank Chopp, and Senate President Lisa Brown even called state police to suggest that a leaked internal memo from the Washington State Labor Council crossed a legal line. The betrayal prompted changes in the way the state’s labor movement will approach politics in years to come.

The Oregon Legislature met from January to June, and passed a bill that gives workers the right to refuse to attend workplace anti-union meetings. But on Dec. 22, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Associated Oregon Industries filed suit to stop the new law from taking effect Jan. 1.

Throughout 2009, construction unions were busy lobbying for a new Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver that would include six through lanes and six merging lanes, light rail extensions, bike and pedestrian lanes, and interchange improvements. However, several politicians from both Portland and Vancouver have wavered on their support, so lobbying will continue in 2010.

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