By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
BEND, OREGON — The 53rd Oregon AFL-CIO Convention, Sept. 27-29 in Bend, echoed the national AFL-CIO convention in Los Angeles two weeks before. Both placed great emphasis on outside alliances. At the national convention Sept. 8-11, the AFL-CIO committed to form an enduring alliance with community groups. At the Oregon convention — its official theme “The New Face of Labor” — delegates endorsed a state-wide experiment in long-term coalition-building with community, immigrant, and civil rights groups, and gave “constituency groups” a seat on the Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board.
The AFL-CIO, founded in 1955 with the merger of the American Federation of Labor (AFL) and Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), is the premier coordinating body of the American labor movement. Local, state, and national AFL-CIO bodies pool union political resources for maximum impact, and provide a forum for unions to resolve conflicts and maintain unity.
But the U.S. labor movement is in dire decline, owing to political assaults, economic and cultural changes, and organizational inertia. If current trend lines continue, Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain told convention delegates, there will be no U.S. labor movement in 30 years.
“Playing it safe at this moment in our history is a formula for disaster,” Chamberlain said. For unions to focus only on the wages and working conditions of their members isn’t going to work, Chamberlain said. Instead, labor must speak for all workers, and ally with community groups fighting for justice.
Delegates endorsed that vision with the passage of several resolutions and constitutional changes. The Oregon AFL-CIO Executive Board will now have one member selected to represent officially-chartered AFL-CIO constituency groups — cross-union organizations of young workers, retired workers, gay workers, black workers, and others. And delegates resolved to continue Oregon Strong Voice, an experiment in long-term coalition-building with local civil rights and other groups, several of which sent representatives to the convention.
A packed and unified convention hall
Organizers said it was the best-attended convention in recent years, with 212 delegates and 138 honorary delegates and guests, 350 attendees in all.
The Oregon AFL-CIO rotates conventions around the state, but there are no unionized meeting facilities outside of Portland. This one took place at non-union Riverhouse Hotel and Convention Center in Bend; convention sergeants-at-arms took up a collection and raised $689 to thank convention center workers.
Delegates approved more agenda-setting policy resolutions than in previous years, and nearly all passed unanimously. [See “Resolved” for details.] Only one resolution — endorsing plans for a union-built liquified natural gas export facility in Coos Bay — encountered significant opposition. It passed 83-29 after it was amended to call on the project developer to take extra steps for environmental remediation.
At the convention’s close, Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council Executive Director John Mohlis credited
AFSCME Local 3135 president Oregon AFSCME President Jeff Klatke for reaching out six months before the convention to avoid “messy floor fights.”
“We’re not always going to agree,” Mohlis said. “But if we’re willing to sit down and listen to each other, and talk and be respectful of each other, it’s worth a try. It’s what our members expect us to do.”
Another sign of unity was Oregon’s AFL-CIO stepped-up organizing assistance program, which federation leaders credited with victories ranging from unionizing 1,900 University of Oregon faculty to forming a union-affiliated taxi co-op to securing a neutrality agreement with Hyatt that could make it easier for future workers to unionize if a convention center hotel is built in Portland. The Oregon AFL-CIO has been trying a new approach to organizing, in which affiliated unions pool their staff organizers for all-out blitzes. Delegates endorsed that approach, approving an organizing resolution that hikes — by 5 cents per member per month — the dues that affiliated unions pay to the Oregon AFL-CIO. The increase, dedicated to organizing, will raise over $60,000 a year to pay for Oregon AFL-CIO organizing staff. The organizing resolution also sets a goal of 3 percent net growth in union membership, and it codifies the organizing program’s principles. To get help with organizing, unions must commit to a playbook for successful campaigns, which includes visits to every worker, meetings to involve workers, formation of a worker committee, and a commitment not to file for a union election unless it’s clear there is at least two-thirds support in a workplace.
A governor, a senator, and a national union heavy hitter
Over two days and a night, delegates also heard from politicians, labor leaders, and allies, including Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, and American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten.
Kitzhaber’s appearance put public employee unions in an uncomfortable position — two days before a special legislative session that he called in order to further trim retiree benefits in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). Oregon AFL-CIO affiliates like AFSCME, AFT-Oregon, and Oregon School Employees Union objected strongly to Kitzhaber’s PERS cuts proposal, and pledged to challenge it in court. But they’re also counting on help from the governor to defeat a proposed anti-union “right-to-work” ballot initiative that would weaken public employee unions by barring any requirement that workers pay for union representation. Kitzhaber pledged at a Labor Day picnic to campaign against the measure.
In caucus meetings the morning of Kitzhaber’s visit, public employee union leaders asked delegates to be courteous. In the end, some public sector delegates stayed seated and withheld applause during his address, one delegate held a protest sign as Kitzhaber entered the convention, and a handful held signs outside as he left.
Kitzhaber told convention delegates he doesn’t have all the answers on how to rebuild the middle class, but said the proposed anti-union ballot measure is certainly not the answer: “We are not going to let that take root in Oregon, not now, not ever.”
At the conclusion of his remarks, Kitzhaber took part in a ceremonial signing of a bill passed earlier this year that requires managers to stay neutral when public sector employees consider whether to unionize.
After his convention address, Kitzhaber told the Labor Press he hopes his opposition to the anti-union initiative and support for basic union rights will be seen as the real litmus test of his support for unionism — not his PERS proposal.
“These are benefits that were earned. I understand people who disagree with me about this,” he said.
Kitzhaber said he would seek no further cuts to PERS. He also confirmed that he’s working behind the scenes to keep both the anti-union initiative — and a set of tax initiatives proposed by the union-backed group Our Oregon — off the ballot. Kitzhaber said the measures would be counterproductive to his goal of developing a labor-business coalition that could reach agreement on public finance.
Merkley, taking the stage several hours after Kitzhaber, also took a shot at the proposed anti-union ballot initiative: “The 1 percent have a strategy,” Merkley said. “It’s easier to squeeze profits out of working people if they’re disorganized than if they’re organized.”
Merkley, who has voted 100 percent in accord with the recommendations of the national AFL-CIO, talked about trade, infrastructure, and his campaign to end abuse of the filibuster, which he said is used by “the 1 percent” “as a veto on legislation that would benefit working people.” Beijing has gone from bicycles to bullet trains in 10 years, Merkley said, because China spends 10 percent of its budget on infrastructure. The United States, by contrast, spends 2 percent — “not enough to maintain the infrastructure our parents built.”
As for future NAFTA-style trade agreements, said Merkley: “I will not support any trade agreement that creates an un-level playing field and strips jobs from the United States of America.”
Immediately after, delegates voted an early endorsement in Merkley’s 2014 campaign for re-election to the U.S. Senate.
One of the convention’s most rousing speeches came from Weingarten, the national AFT leader, who spoke of sustained attacks on teachers and public education, and of AFT’s plans to build unionism in Texas. The Oregon Nurses Association’s move to join AFT earlier this year made Weingarten’s union the most numerous within the Oregon AFL-CIO: Of the 111,000 workers in Oregon AFL-CIO affiliated unions, roughly 41,000 belong to AFT affiliates.
Weingarten said with its community alliance resolution, the national AFL-CIO is looking to leverage the power of a declining union membership by finding “agendas that unite people in the community with the people we represent.”
“We have to do things differently if we’re going to turn around the country,” Weingarten said. “America can be turned around with a collective voice, when we have the strength of the community together.”
At its 2013 convention, the Oregon AFL-CIO singled out a handful of individuals and groups for special recognition. Here are some of them.
Oregon AFL-CIO Legislator of the Year: State Rep. Michael Dembrow (D-Portland). Dembrow is a Portland Community College writing instructor who helped his fellow faculty unionize and went on to become a longtime leader within the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). Now in his third House term, he’s part of the House Democratic leadership as assistant majority leader for policy. In the 2013 legislative session, he sponsored and led passage of HB 3342, the Oregon AFL-CIO’s priority legislation, which requires managers to remain neutral when state and local government workers consider whether to unionize.
Oregon AFL-CIO Freshman Legislator of the Year: State Rep. Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland). Williamson was the only first-term legislator to hold a 100 percent voting record on AFL-CIO recorded bills in 2013.
Largest public sector organizing win: AFT-Oregon, for using card-check legislation that AFL-CIO won in 2007 to help 1,900 University of Oregon faculty unionize.
Largest private sector organizing win: Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757, for unionizing 160 employees of First Transit, which operate TriMet lift service for the elderly and disabled.
Individual most involved in Oregon AFL-CIO’s 2012 electoral campaign effort: Robert Camarillo, organizer for Iron Workers Local 29.
Organization most involved in Oregon AFL-CIO’s 2012 electoral campaign effort: Oregon School Employees Association, with 20 members taking a leave of absence from their jobs to work on political campaigns.
Greatest efforts to reach workers at the job in Oregon AFL-CIO’s 2012 electoral campaign effort: Jodi Guetzloe-Parker, executive secretary-treasurer, Columbia Pacific Building and Construction Trades Council.
“Small But Mighty” award for greatest percentage of members involved Oregon AFL-CIO’s 2012 electoral campaign effort: Iron Workers Local 29, with over 10 percent.
More convention coverage:
Homecoming for national AFL-CIO’s Liz Shuler The top-level labor leader is a native Oregonian.
Resolved, that the AFL-CIO will … Delegates approve dozens of resolutions setting policy.
[CORRECTION: This article incorrectly identified Jeff Klatke as president of AFSCME Local 3135; Klatke is no longer president of Local 3135, but is president of state-wide Oregon AFSCME Council 75. ]