As reported in the pages of the Northwest Labor Press, 2013 was a year of legislative gains for organized labor, mostly — and a year that saw greater labor unity and a spirit of fightback among working people. But there were also a number of tough contract fights, and some defeats.
Portland City Hall
It’s hard to overstate the importance of the new sick leave ordinance passed unanimously by Portland City Council in March. About a quarter of a million workers, nearly all non-union, gained an important human right in the workplace as of Jan. 1, 2014. That’s almost as many workers as all the union members in Oregon. The measure was sponsored by City Commissioner Amanda Fritz after a campaign by Family Forward Oregon, Causa, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, the Oregon Working Families Party, and Working America, among other groups.
The Oregon Legislature banned the expenditure of public funds to keep employees from unionizing; gave workers the right to take up to two weeks unpaid bereavement leave; and expanded the prevailing wage law to cover public projects constructed with donor money. [More details here.] But lawmakers also trimmed public employee retirement benefits, and gave away over $500 million in new tax breaks to business owners.
A patient campaign by U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) to reform the filibuster bore fruit in 2013. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) at length concluded that too few presidential nominees would ever get a vote if minority GOP senators could filibuster their confirmation votes. Reid held a vote on a change to Senate rules, and a majority of senators voted to eliminate the filibuster on presidential nominations (except for U.S. Supreme Court nominations). The result is a fully functioning National Labor Relations Board for the first time since Obama was elected — and a new Labor Secretary who has already moved several long-overdue regulations: an OSHA rule protecting workers from silica dust, and a federal regulation extending minimum wage and overtime to home care workers.
Newly unionized workers
In March, a group of 781 graduate research assistants at Oregon State University in Corvallis voted by a 9-1 margin to join an existing unit of teaching assistants represented by American Federation of Teachers (AFT)-Oregon, and 287 workers at Mount Hood Community College Head Start joined Oregon School Employees Association via signed authorization cards. Workers at KBOO-FM radio in Portland unionized — and negotiated a first contract with Communications Workers of America (CWA) Local 7901. And Union Cab — a newly-approved Portland cab cooperative affiliated with Local 7901 opened for business in April. In June, however, a campaign by the Machinists to unionize Precision Castparts went down in a 932 to 1,258 vote.
A unit of 1,800 University of Oregon faculty ratified their first-ever union contract in October, delivering greater job security and raises averaging 11.75 percent. That was the product of a six-year campaign. But at year’s end, three other large public employee units were having great difficulty securing acceptable contract renewals: 1,600 members of the District Council of Trade Unions at the City of Portland, 2,000 members of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 757 at TriMet, and 3,000 members of the Portland Association of Teachers at Portland Public Schools.
And large private sector employers were playing hardball with their union employees. In February, United Grain locked out members of International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) from its export terminal at the Port of Vancouver, and Columbia Grain did the same in May at its terminal at the Port of Portland. ILWU members were still locked out of those jobs at year’s end. Meanwhile, members of Machinists Lodge 1005 and Sign Painters and Paint Makers Local 1094 at Daimler’s Western Star truck plant in Portland struck 22 days and returned to work after agreeing to a contract that was little changed from the one they rejected before the strike: Raises of $1.30 an hour over three years, but also increased health insurance premiums and an end to post-65 retiree health benefits.
And Boeing Inc. told union Machinists it would leave the Puget Sound behind and locate new aircraft assembly elsewhere — if they didn’t vote to end their own pensions and sell out future co-workers with a wage scale that more than doubled the time it takes to reach top pay. With three years still remaining on their existing contract, members turned down that offer by a more than two-to-one ratio.
Jobs, jobs, jobs
Union construction workers were kept busy at the massive expansion of Intel’s Ronler Acres campus in Hillsboro in 2013, with thousands employed throughout the year. And in general, work in the building trades was up. In May, the massive remodel of the Edith Green Wendell Wyatt Federal Building was completed: The $139-million stimulus-funded project employed union labor under a project labor agreement, and was completed on time and on budget two years and four months after site work began.
Union business managers pushed hard in 2013 to develop future work opportunities: If financing comes together for a convention center headquarters hotel in Portland, Hyatt Corp. and its general contractor pledged in 2013 to use union building trades members to build it — and to remain neutral toward union organizing efforts by the hotel workers union UNITE HERE once it opens. But the area’s biggest jobs project, a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River, was no closer to reality after years of planning: The Oregon Legislature committed $450 million to the project, but the Washington Senate failed to vote the necessary matching amount.
Unions merge, and split
In 2013, the 10,400-member Oregon Nurses Association joined American Federation of Teachers (AFT); and 200-member Boilermakers Local 500, based in Portland, merged into 350-member Local 242, based in Spokane. Service Employees International Union (SEIU) locals 49 and 503 began merger discussions, which they expected to conclude in Spring 2014; if they unify, the combination would be a 65,000-member union of janitors, security guards, health care workers, and state employees.
Nationally, 1.3 million-member United Food and Commercial Workers resolved in August to rejoin the AFL-CIO, the federation it broke away from eight years prior. But International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU), went the opposite direction: The 50,000-member union of West Coast dockworkers disaffiliated with the AFL-CIO, citing jurisdictional disputes with other AFL-CIO unions.
Don’t mourn; organize
The local labor movement also noted the passing of a number of long-time union activists in 2013, including Tommy Malloy, former Teamsters business agent and lobbyist; Bill Fritz, former labor educator with the University of Oregon Labor Education and Research Center; Ken Jette, former statewide president of the American Postal Workers Union; Kathy Morris, retired United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 official and expert on workers’ compensation; Lin Mayes, former secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 555; Larry Kenney, former president of the Washington State Labor Council; Sandy Fahey, co-founder of the Carpenters Food Bank; and Tom Gates, former president of National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 916 in Eugene.