“We are One” was the rallying cry for an embattled labor movement as 214 union delegates came together Sept. 26 -28 from all across Oregon for the biennial convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO. Meeting at the Eugene Hilton Hotel and Conference Center, delegates increased contributions to the union federation’s political fund, voted to support full marriage equality, and re-elected the top leadership. Three Democratic candidates for Oregon’s First Congressional District vied in an hour-long debate for Oregon AFL-CIO support, after which delegates debated too, but made no endorsement in the end. Delegates did approve a wide variety of policy resolutions, heard messages of solidarity from top labor and political figures, and singled out several individuals and organizations for special honors.
A question of endorsement
The convention’s most consequential debate was whether to make an endorsement in the primary for Oregon’s First Congressional District. Oregon AFL-CIO’s COPE political committee recommended that delegates take up the question themselves. Nearly all the convention delegates knew one candidate — Brad Witt — as as one of labor’s own. For 14 years, Witt was the Oregon AFL-CIO’s number two officer. Now he’s a state representative for Clatskanie, and a staff representative at United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555. Local 555 isn’t an affiliate of the Oregon AFL-CIO, but Witt is also a member of the Machinists, which is an affiliate.
But Witt is also running in a three-way primary against two better-funded candidates who also have strong labor records. Brad Avakian is Oregon’s current Commissioner of Labor, in charge of enforcing wage and hour, civil rights, apprenticeship and prevailing wage laws. Suzanne Bonamici, while not as directly tied to the union movement, nonetheless has a solid pro-labor voting record in the Oregon Legislature.
A long line of delegates argued for an endorsement of Witt out of recognition for his 30-year-record of service to labor, and to show that labor stands by its own. But Oregon AFL-CIO rules, in the interest of labor unity, require any endorsement to be supported by at least two-thirds. Several motions were made, but no proposal achieved that supermajority. [See here for fuller coverage of the candidate and internal debate.]
Setting policy, strengthening the war-chest
Conventions are also where the Oregon AFL-CIO sets its policies, and some union delegations came to the convention honor-bound to pursue resolutions passed within their own organizations. Most of these won delegate approval, including resolutions:
- demanding that prison-made baked goods (here for details.) not be served to Oregon school children, and encouraging all union members to contact Bakers Local 114 (503-256-1177) if they see prison-made bread (delivered under the label “First Choice”) in schools;
- calling upon the Oregon Legislature to prohibit the export of paper waste collected from Oregon citizens, businesses and government agencies;
- urging affiliates, endorsed campaigns and partners in the community to have a union label on all professionally printed materials distributed for the community;
- supporting the Columbia River Crossing project; and
- proclaiming solidarity with the indigenous peoples who were the original occupants of the Americas, and calling on the national AFL-CIO to form a constituency group for Native American trade unionists.
Also passed was a “marriage equality” resolution, which declares that equal rights for gay, lesbian and transgender people is “the civil rights struggle of our time.” Under the resolution, sponsored by Oregon AFSCME, the Oregon AFL-CIO pledges to support legislation and/or ballot measures that confer full marriage equality to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, and to oppose legislation that bans marriage rights based on sexual orientation. The resolution also declares agreement with President Obama’s decision not to defend in court the Defense of Marriage Act, a 1996 law which allows states not to recognize same-sex marriages in other states. No delegate spoke against the marriage equality resolution during the floor discussion, and it passed on a voice vote with only one delegate voting in opposition. Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain lauded the resolution’s passage, saying it likely wouldn’t have passed a few years ago. The gay civil rights organization Basic Rights Oregon will decide in the next two months whether to pursue a freedom-to-marry measure on the 2012 ballot.
A separate resolution authored by AFSCME Green Caucus was the subject of extended debate. It would have committed the Oregon AFL-CIO to oppose privatization of water resources in Oregon, and specifically a Nestlé water-bottling facility in Cascade Locks. But building trades union delegates and others objected, citing the need for jobs. The resolution failed in a “roll call” vote based on affiliated membership numbers. A separate resolution of support for the “Renew America’s Water” campaign did pass, however. That labor-environmental effort calls for $30 billion in federal infrastructure investment to create jobs repairing pipes and upgrading water treatment facilities.
A delegation from Laborers Local 483 worked to pass a resolution to “promote a position of strength against concessions” which was authored by some Local 483 members who belong to a committee of rank-and-file activists from several unions. The resolution called on the Oregon AFL-CIO to organize a committee to support massive demonstrations and a sustained campaign to tax banks, corporations, and the wealthy, divert war spending to create a national public works program, and make education, infrastructure and transit investments. After some debate, it was passed in amended form: Instead of forming a committee, the resolution encourages the federation to work with affiliates on the campaign.
Delegates approved a 10-month-long special assessment on affiliated unions totaling $4 per member which will raise an estimated $420,000 for use in the 2012 election cycle. They also approved an increase in regular monthly dues, starting 2013, to $1.00 per member, up from the current dues of $0.81 per member. Delegates also approved several changes to the Oregon AFL-CIO constitution to bring it into line with the national AFL-CIO.
Rallying the troops
For local leaders and activists, part of the appeal of attending a labor convention is the chance to get fired up for the work ahead. In this convention, plenary speaker after speaker denounced Wall Streeters for looting the economy.
That provided an unintentional moment of humor at one point. Just after president Chamberlain declared that the labor movement isn’t afraid of Wall Street bullies, loud alarms went off in the convention hall, and blue lights flashed. Hilton Worldwide is owned by the Blackstone Group, one of the world’s largest private equity firms. Had the corporate barons been listening in? As it turned out, it was a scheduled test of the fire alarm system.
Next up, Oregon House Democratic Leader Tina Kotek of Portland observed that the wealthiest people in America tend to complain of “class warfare” whenever proposals arise to tax the rich.
“There’s been class warfare for a long time,” Kotek told delegates, “and those who’ve been getting hurt have been the middle class.”
From Canada, Jim Sinclair, president of the British Columbia Federation of Labour, brought a message of solidarity for the struggle over Wisconsin public sector union rights.
“We need to reject this division between the private sector and the public sector,” Sinclair said. “Why are they attacking public sector workers? Because they don’t want to pay their fair share.”
Sinclair closed a 20-minute oration with what he learned from a union president at his first union convention — a labor leader who had spent a year and a half in jail because he refused to take down a picket line, saying workers take down picket lines, not courts: “He said to me, ‘There’s two things you have to learn if you want to help the working class,’” Sinclair recalled. “The working class didn’t get a goddamned thing they didn’t fight for.… And you don’t get to keep a goddamned thing unless you keep fighting.’”
Working America executive director Karen Nussbaum reported that her national organization, which the AFL-CIO describes as its “community affiliate,” has organized 150,000 members in Oregon. Working America operates a one-to-one door-to-door canvass that results in two out of three households becoming members, Nussbaum said. “[They’re] new members of the AFL-CIO, your neighbors, the folks who don’t have the benefit of a union on the job, but want to be part of a power to change this state and this country.”
Nussbaum said the Working America canvass results in 20,000 conversations a week around the country, and a pretty good sense of the public mood: angry, isolated, and despairing.
“The foundational problem that we face as a labor movement is that far too few people believe in collective power,” Nussbaum said. “They have no experience with it. It’s only union members any more who have experience with collective power.” Working America, Nussbaum said, is an attempt to extend that power to a wider public.
Other guest speakers included Arlene Holt-Baker, national AFL-CIO executive vice president, and Bob Baugh, executive director of the AFL-CIO Industrial Union Council. Delegates also heard from a succession of political leaders. Besides the three Congressional candidates and Kotek, guest speakers included both of Oregon’s U.S. Senators — Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden — as well as Congressman Peter DeFazio, Oregon Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, and Eugene Mayor Kitty Piercy.
And delegates took a break Sept. 27 to march to the nearby Wayne Morse Free Speech Plaza for a 100-strong rally to Save America’s Postal Service. Unions are campaigning to get Congress to modify an unusual retiree health coverage pre-funding requirement, which they say is pushing the US Postal Service toward default and large-scale service cuts and post office closures.
Delegates approved the federation’s leadership for the next few years. President Tom Chamberlain and Secretary-treasurer Barbara Byrd were re-elected without opposition. Elected to the Oregon AFL-CIO’s nine-member Executive Committee were: Ken Allen, Oregon AFSCME; Kelly Bach, Fire Fighters; Paul Goldberg, Nurses; Jim Gourley, Steel Workers; Clif Davis, Electrical Workers; Jon Hunt, Amalgamated Transit Union; John Mohlis, Building Trades Council; David Rives, American Federation of Teachers; Steve Wilson, Machinists; and Cj Mann for the Central Labor Councils. Also elected were at-large members of the larger Executive Board of which the Executive Committee is a part: Pat Smith, Painters; Tim Frew, Electrical Workers; Mark Holiday, Operating Engineers; Lou Christian, Plumbers; Gary Gillespie, AFSCME; Kevin Card, Letter Carriers; Bonnie Luisi, School Employees; Bob Petroff, Machinists; Ken Saither, Communication Workers; Jeff Smith, Longshore; Harold Fleshman, Nurses; Tim Roark, Government Employees; David Tischer, Laborers; Bruce Fife, Musicians; and Tom Holden, Steelworkers. The new Executive Board was sworn into office immediately after the convention adjourned.
Awards and recognition
Several honors were given out over the course of the convention. On Day One, a group of Portland taxi drivers were brought to the podium, where Communications Workers of America Local 7901 president Madelyn Elder described their gutsy campaign to form a unionized taxi cab cooperative based on a similar effort in Denver. On Day Three, AFL-CIO affiliated unions and individuals were recognized for political and organizing achievements:
- Willy Myers of Sheet Metal Local 16, for developing a program to train new union members about the labor movement; third year apprentices in Local 16 take part in a week-long intensive training about labor history, federal workers rights laws, and the reasons for labor’s involvement in politics.
- Jim (and Lisa) Gourley of United Steel Workers, for outstanding participation in Labor 2010, as the AFL-CIO’s 2010 electoral effort was dubbed.
- Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) and Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901 for largest private-sector organizing victories — OSEA’s campaign to unionize 110 First Student school bus drivers at Gresham-Barlow school district, and CWA’s unionization vote among 150 workers at Dosha Salon Spa.
- Oregon AFSCME for the largest public sector organizing victory — 165 City of Lake Oswego workers who joined in November 2010.
- Oregon AFSCME, again, for outstanding statewide involvement in Labor 2010.
- AFT-Oregon and its affiliate Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA) for dedicating the most staff to work on the Oregon AFL-CIO’s Labor 2010 political campaign; leading up to the November 2010 election, OSEA deployed nearly 30 temporary campaign workers to do member outreach.
- IATSE Local 28 for highest percentage of membership involvement; up to 20 percent of Local 28 members took part in events organized by the Oregon AFL-CIO.
“Brothers and sisters, we have so much at stake right now,” Chamberlain declared, closing the convention. “This is a moment in history that will never happen again. It’s either going to get better or it’s going to get worse, and we can make that decision if we walk out that door as one.”