By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
The Oregon Legislature adjourned its 2013 legislative session July 8, wrapping up what — for organized labor — was a moderately successful session. With Democratic majorities in the House (34-26) and Senate (16-14), legislators passed a law barring public sector union-busting, closed a loophole in the state prevailing wage law, and approved hundreds of millions of dollars in new construction and infrastructure spending, enough to keep many building trades union members busy in the coming two years. Public sector unions faced a setback, however, when every Democrat in the House and Senate joined Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber to trim benefits in PERS (Public Employee Retirement System).
No more public sector union-busting
The law the Oregon AFL-CIO is most proud of goes to the heart of union rights. HB 3342, sponsored by Representative Michael Dembrow (D-Portland) prohibits state county and local employers from deterring (or promoting) unionization, and from spending money or holding meetings with employees to deter or promote unionization. It passed both chambers on strict party lines, with all Democrats voting in favor and all Republicans opposed.
“It prevents public sector managers from using public dollars to weigh in on union organizing drives based on their personal opinions,” said Oregon AFL-CIO legislative and communications director Elana Guiney. “It’s none of their business. It’s a decision that should be up to the workers.”
When faculty campaigned for a union at University of Oregon, the school spent over $300,000 on outside consultants and lawyers to oppose it. That would have been illegal under the new law, Guiney said.
There were several other gains for workers’ rights this session, including:
- Bereavement leave. The brainchild of Bakers Local 114 member Robin Zimmerman, HB 2950 allows employees to take up to two weeks unpaid leave to deal with the death of a family member.
- Keeping employers’ prying eyes off workers’ Facebook pages. HB 2654 makes it illegal for an employer to request access to an employee’s or applicant’s personal social media account, or to require an employee to “friend” their employer by adding the employer to their social media list of contacts.
Halting an end-run around prevailing wage
A state law known as little Davis-Bacon requires that construction workers be paid the prevailing wage and benefits on public construction projects. Governments are supposed to award building contracts to the lowest bidder. But the prevailing wage law ensures that doesn’t mean the contractor with the lowest wages: All government construction contractors are required to pay the area standard wage for each specialty, as determined by an annual survey. But several recent projects at University of Oregon had sidestepped the prevailing wage by building with donor dollars from Nike mogul Phil Knight, and then deeding those buildings to the school.
“That trend was going to continue unless we nipped it in the bud,” said John Mohlis, executive secretary-treasurer of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council. Closing the loophole was a top priority this year for the building trades.
HB 2646 — sponsored by Dembrow and State Rep. Margaret Doherty — did that, saying that regardless of funding source, if construction or renovation is done on property that a state university owns, will use, occupy, or ultimately own, it is subject to the requirement to pay prevailing wage. It passed 47-10 in the House and 27-2 in the Senate.
Money for construction
Legislators also put money towards new construction and infrastructure, starting with a $450 million commitment to the Interstate-5 Bridge Replacement Project (Columbia River Crossing), passed in the early days of the session. The project depended on a matching commitment from the Washington Legislature, however, and Republican legislators there opposed the project, which was part of a larger transportation funding bill. When the Washington Legislature ended its 2013 session without approving the funds, the project was closed down.
But lawmakers also voted to approve bond funding for other Oregon projects that will keep building trades workers busy, including:
- $316 million for 12 new state university projects;
- $109 million for 16 new community college projects;
- $80 million to construct a new state mental hospital in Junction City;
- $42 million for ConnectOregon, a program of state grants and loans for non-highway transportation projects that promote economic development, including rail, shipping, and airport construction;
- $34 million for pre-construction planning on a project to earthquake proof the state Capitol building;
- $15 million to renovate the Multnomah County Courthouse;
- $10 million for constructing a private hotel next to the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, so long as local governments also contribute, and approve local hotel taxes to repay the bonds; and
- $5 million to the help plan the redevelopment of the 23-acre site in downtown Oregon City where the now-closed Blue Heron paper mill sits.
‘PERS savings’ (reducing benefits to retired public employees)
A central part of this year’s legislative session was the debate, not on whether to cut PERS benefits, but how much. Democrats passed Gov. Kitzhaber’s proposal, in SB 822, to cut $200 million in future public employee pension benefits by reducing cost-of-living increases, particularly for higher-income retirees. Republicans voted against the bill because they wanted even deeper cuts. Public sector unions denounced the cuts, saying they renege on the state’s promise to retirees — by changing the terms of their retirement after they’ve already retired. Similar changes have been struck down by the Oregon Supreme Court in the past. Members of the PERS Coalition filed suit July 1 challenging the law. SB 822 contains a provision that directs any legal challenge immediately to the Oregon Supreme Court, but the challenge could still be 18 to 24 months away from resolution.
Let’s look more closely at that …
The boldest proposals in the Legislature didn’t make it all the way to the finish line, but some moved forward as study groups, which will report back to the Legislature in future sessions.
- Tuition-free college. One of the boldest proposals, known as “Pay it Forward, Pay it Back,” was supported by the union-backed Oregon Working Families Party. The idea is to reduce student debt by letting students attend college tuition-free — if they agree to pay a small percentage of their future income over a period of 24 years. To set it up, lawmakers referred a constitutional amendment to voters in 2014. But related legislation — authorizing special bonds to fund the program — failed to pass. Backers will take up the proposal in future sessions.
- Single-payer health care. HB 3260 began as a call for a state study of the merits of a government-administered and publicly financed single payer model of health care financing — alongside the merits of creating a public insurance option to compete with private insurers. In the end, lawmakers approved the study, if private funding can be secured to pay for it. The Oregon Health Authority would report back to the Legislature in November 2014 with the results of the study.
- Sick leave for all workers. In March, Portland City Council passed an ordinance guaranteeing the right to sick leave for workers employed in Portland. HB 3390 would have extended that right to all Oregon workers. But it didn’t have enough support to pass, and died in committee. Backers expect to form a work group to study the proposal further and bring a workable bill back to the Legislature in 2014 or 2015.
Returning shop classes to schools
Shop classes got a boost with a bill, SB 498, that increases funding for grants to school districts that want to launch Career and Technical Education programs. The program started two years ago with $2 million in funding. This year, lawmakers voted a total of $9.4 million in funding.
Other laws affecting the building trades
- HB 2820 makes it easier to site utility-scale solar development in Eastern Oregon by allowing solar projects up to 250 acres in size on low-value farmland.
- HB 2977B requires construction labor contractors to be licensed by Bureau of Labor and Industries, in order to help prevent non-payment of wages owed.
- SB 831 increases the amount of money set aside in federal funds to increase diversity in the highway construction workforce, and provides funding for pre-apprenticeship programs geared toward preparing people to enter the workforce.
- SB 405-A ensures prompt payment of subcontractors on public construction contracts.
ATU 1, TriMet 0
TriMet, embroiled in a protracted dispute with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, wanted to eliminate binding arbitration by returning transit workers to the category of public employees who are allowed to strike. But lawmakers would have none of that proposal. Instead, in the wake of revelations that the TriMet board approved funds for secret management raises, lawmakers passed HB 3316B, directing the secretary of state to conduct a performance audit of the transit agency.
Rights for immigrants
The Oregon AFL-CIO backed two pieces of legislation this year that will benefit workers and students who are unauthorized immigrants.
HB 2787, the “Tuition Equity” law, allows students who have lived in Oregon for at least three years and are pursuing citizenship to pay in-state tuition when attending college in Oregon.
And SB 833-B, the Safe Roads Act, allows individuals who have resided in Oregon for at least a year to obtain a driver’s card without having to provide proof of legal residence in the United States.
“It’s not good, for anybody, to have unlicensed drivers on the road,” the AFL-CIO’s Guiney explained. “Any person who’s in this country and trying to work should have a safe way to get to work.”
Preserving industrial land: Better luck next time
The Oregon AFL-CIO pushed a bill, HB 2657, making it harder to rezone industrial land without replacing it. It passed the House but failed to win a majority in a Senate committee.
Telling Congress and the president what Oregon wants
There’s a non-binding category of legislation known as the “Joint Memorial” in which the Legislature urges the president or Congress to do or not to do things that will affect the people of Oregon. This year, labor had a hand in passing at least three such measures, and possibly defeating a fourth one:
- Citizens United. HJM 6 calls on Congress to overturn the 2010 Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC by beginning the process of passing an amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The Citizens United case lifted restrictions on corporate political spending, and led to a massive infusion of money into 2012 election campaigns.
- Save the Postal Service. HJM 7 urges Congress to pass the Postal Service Protection Act of 2013, which would end the unique requirement to pre-pay retiree health care costs, a requirement that is bleeding USPS of funds and leading to near-insolvency and widespread post office closures.
- Investigate Chinese paper subsidies. SJM 5, filed at the request of the Association of Western Pulp and Paper Workers and the Carpenters Industrial Council, urges the Commerce secretary to investigate Chinese paper subsidies, whether they violate rules of the World Trade Organization, and the impact they have on United States paper manufacturers. Over 100,000 U.S. jobs have been lost in the pulp and paper industry, at the same time that imports of Chinese paper to the United States have surged.
- No more tough sanctions during farm labor stings. SJM 7 would have told the president and Congress that the Department of Labor, in effect, shouldn’t use its strongest sanctions when farm employers violate the minimum wage law. Last summer, DOL used its “hot goods” sanction in a crackdown on Oregon blueberry growers that were accused of using “ghost workers,” workers not on the books, who are usually not paid minimum wage. SJM 7 passed the Senate, but opposed by labor groups, failed to get a vote in the House.