We can’t endorse based solely on a political party

By Tom Chamberlain, Oregon AFL-CIO President

Many, including myself, will look back on the compromises made to reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including a provision that makes it more difficult for a worker to join a union, as another example of the old idiom: “Democrats love unions at election time but are more than willing to throw workers under the bus between elections.”  Time after time, some Democrats have been quick to ignore workers and the unions that represent them.  The failure of the U.S. Congressional Democrats to prioritize the Employee Free Choice Act in 2010 is the perfect example.

While many Democrats are, at best, passive on our issues, the alternatives can be far worse.  If you disagree, you haven’t been watching the 2012 Republican presidential debates.  The candidates all seem to be running on platforms that would decimate unions as we know them, reminiscent of the anti-union legislation that has been passed or introduced in state after state.

Given the choice between backing out of the political process and letting these candidates destroy the middle class, I’ll take the passive supporters.

But there is another option.

Truth be told, I don’t care about political party.  I only care whether or not a candidate supports workers, believes that workers have an unfettered right to choose to join a union, and understands that the wealth imbalance between the 1% and the 99ers is destroying the middle class and pushing the poor to the brink.

There are politicians who care.

U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) is one of them.  When he served in the Oregon Legislature he not only supported workers, he was a champion.  As speaker of the Oregon House in 2007, he ushered through the most progressive workers’ agenda in the nation.  As a U.S. senator, Merkley has become an even stronger advocate for workers, and he and his staff regularly communicate with workers in Oregon.

I cannot think of a major issue that impacts workers — whether it is trade, implementing or removing tariffs, or the recent FAA budget, where I haven’t received a call from Sen. Merkley or his staff asking for our input in his decision making process.  Congressmen Earl Blumenauer, Peter DeFazio and Kurt Schrader maintain similar relationships with Oregon workers.

Sen. Merkley’s honesty and respect for Oregon workers is clear.  What he tells you in Oregon is reflected in his positions and votes in Washington, D.C.  When he voted against the FAA budget because it degraded workers’ rights, he went against U.S. Senate Democratic leadership.  He went against Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and stood up for workers’ rights.  His position took courage and a deep-seated belief that workers aren’t bargaining chips in a high stakes political poker game.

To elect more Jeff Merkleys, we cannot afford to endorse candidates based solely on a political party.  We must look at candidates’ history and their positions.  When candidates refuse to state, on the record, their position on workers’ issues, they do not deserve our endorsements.

Last November I was reading questionnaires from candidates in House District 36. One candidate answered the bulk of the questions with “yes” or “no” responses.  While her responses weren’t anti-worker, they lacked commitment.  Her opponent, Jennifer Williamson, wrote elaborate answers and committed to sponsor key bills.  Williamson’s commitment to workers was evident.

As union members, our endorsements and our political campaigns are often the margin of victory in close races.  We must support pro-worker candidates and hold elected officials accountable, not just for their votes, but for the relationships they build with Oregon workers.

The candidates who will be on our side will be ready to make the extra effort.

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