Arthur Towers, the long-serving political director at Oregon’s biggest union, left Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 July 18 to work for the Oregon Trial Lawyers Association (OTLA).
Towers, 54, said recent health issues led him to consider a less stressful job. His focus at OTLA — consumer protection — will keep him plenty busy, but Towers said it will be less 24-7 than defending 57,000 public employees in the state capitol.
His departure ends two decades of involvement with labor.
Towers grew up in Wisconsin, Rhode Island, and Missouri, and was drawn to politics at an early age. He dropped out of Washington University in St. Louis to work on political campaigns, including a successful 1978 fight against an anti-union “right-to-work” ballot measure. For Towers, it was a clearcut workers’ rights issue: His father, an English teacher, had been fired from a job at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater for supporting an unsuccessful campaign to unionize with the Teamsters.
Towers worked for 18 months at Missouri Public Interest Research Group (MoPIRG), six years at the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, and then as a consultant on ballot measure and advocacy campaigns around the country. In 1994, that work brought him to Oregon for the first time — to campaign against Measure 15, a constitutional amendment that would have required the state to fully fund schools (and leave other priorities like public safety and senior services to fight over what was left.) He got to know then-SEIU Local 503 executive director Alice Dale, and back in St. Louis, he went to work for SEIU Missouri/Kansas State Council in 1997. When Tim Nesbitt was elected president of the Oregon AFL-CIO in 2000, Towers replaced Nesbitt as executive director of SEIU Oregon State Council, which coordinates state-level politics for SEIU Locals 503 and 49. Three years later, Towers went to work for Dale as political director of SEIU Local 503.
Towers looks back at a number of successes during his labor career. In 2000, Oregon became the first state in the country to use a ballot measure to extend collective bargaining rights to home care workers. Adding home care workers — and later providers of child care, foster care, and care for the developmentally disabled — SEIU Local 503 more than doubled from its 2000 membership of 25,000.
“When they got started, they weren’t even considered workers; they were considered domestics,” Towers said. “It’s been exciting to see the fruits of our labor help low-income working women rise from minimum wage to $13 an hour.” Towers also helped the home care worker campaign develop leaders, who became effective advocates for improved care.
Another high point, Towers said, was the work SEIU did to preserve public services during the state budget crisis in the Great Recession that began in 2008. Local 503 helped state agencies become more efficient by legislation mandating a reduction in the number of managers, and it helped pass 2010 Measures 66 and 67 to temporarily increase taxes on the wealthy and corporations.
A personal low point was the 2013 special session, when the governor Local 503 had helped to elect brokered a second round of cuts to public employee pensions, while passing new tax breaks for large corporations.
During the legislative session, Towers oversaw a staff of six, plus a contract lobbyist, keeping track of multiple committees and up to 150 budget line items. Just about every facet of state government affects Local 503 members, Towers says, from pension rules to health care policy to revenue and budgets.
Towers said one of the things he’s most proud of is helping to build up a program for members to come to the Capitol and visit legislators. Every two years, hundreds come to the Capitol to tell their story. Local 503 organizes 15 lobby days, bringing in groups of 20 to 100 members. Members get a little bit of training, and then they have a real dialogue with legislators, Towers said.
“They hear from agency directors all the time, but they almost never hear from frontline workers,” Towers said.
Though leaving labor, Towers says he won’t be a stranger: OTLA is frequently an ally, working with labor on worker’s compensation and other issues. Towers said his focus on consumer protection means he’ll be taking on the big banks, big oil, big insurance.
“Trial lawyers fight for the injured, victimized or defrauded,” Towers said, “and the same people who harm workers also defraud consumers.”
Towers is succeeded as Local 503’s political director by Melissa Unger, who was executive director of SEIU Oregon State Council.