By Don McIntosh, Associate editor
Ready to fight? Because ready or not, the fight is coming. That was the message for 240 delegates from more than three dozen unions who gathered Oct. 22-25 in Seaside for the biennial convention of the Oregon AFL-CIO. In 2016, President Obama will try to pass a trade deal that could make NAFTA’s impact on U.S. manufacturing jobs look small by comparison, and the U.S. Supreme Court is expected to deliver a body blow to public sector unions.
The AFL-CIO is the voluntary federation that most U.S. unions belong to. It promotes labor unity and coordinates union electoral and political work. Oregon’s AFL-CIO is sustained by dues from 117,609 members of affiliated unions. And its convention is where those affiliates set official policy. Elected leaders from each union appoint delegates, who debate priorities and strategy at the convention.
This year, delegates resolved not to endorse members of Congress who voted for Fast Track; they embraced the Black Lives Matter movement; they endorsed campaigns to raise corporate taxes and the minimum wage; and they approved a phased-in 10 cent-per-member monthly dues increase to fund field operations around the state. They also heard from U.S. Senator Jeff Merkley about the effects of decades of bad trade policy, and from top public sector union leaders about their preparations for the fight of their lives.
“As I stand before you today, we face great peril,” Oregon AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain declared, opening the convention.
“Winter is coming” said Ranfis Giannettino Villatoro of the Voz Workers’ Rights Education Project. The saying comes from the HBO hit show Game of Thrones. In the show, humanity is threatened by an army of ice zombies and must find a way to unite before it’s too late. In the same way, unions must unite and find allies in order to resist corporate trade agreements and survive the impact of the Supreme Court case, Friedrichs vs. California Teachers Association. The court is expected to rule on the case between March and June of 2016, and the result might be that dues become entirely voluntary for all public employee union members nationwide. In the doomsday scenario, once public sector unions are weakened, union foes would follow up with legal assaults on private sector and building trades unions, much as they did in Wisconsin.
Even if we win in 2016, the fight won’t be over … Some observers are calling the attack on workers and unions not just a crisis, but a sustained crisis, not just a series of single problems we’re going to have to solve … but a systemic and continual struggle.” — Oregon AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Barbara Byrd
Leaders of the two biggest state workers unions — SEIU Local 503 executive director Heather Conroy and Oregon AFSCME executive director Ken Allen — said they’re not waiting for the court decision; the two unions, once rivals, are working more closely than ever together, and both are reaching out to represented workers to make the case for continued support of the union.
Already, a business-funded anti-union group has set up shop in Oregon, and is knocking on the doors of SEIU-represented home care workers to suggest they quit their union.
Yet for all the threats, the mood among delegates was optimistic: This year the Oregon Legislature passed a statewide paid sick leave mandate that national AFL-CIO secretary-treasurer Liz Shuler told delegates is a model for the nation. And the biggest debate at the convention was an enviable debate to be having: whether to get behind a $15 or $13.50 statewide minimum wage. In the end delegates opted for “all of the above” — and heard commitments of support for raising the minimum wage from Governor Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek. Kotek said passing a minimum wage increase is the top priority for the February 2016 short legislative session.
This convention was also noticeably more diverse than prior conventions. The Oregon AFL-CIO has been busy making allies, and at the convention, it showed. Representatives of civil rights, immigrant, and environmental groups filled panels and workshops — and spoke on the convention floor as guests of credentialed union delegates.
“The labor movement must be part of the larger movement for social and economic justice,” United Steelworkers International Vice President Fred Redmond told delegates. “We’ve got to stand together and win together.”
Delegates were treated to an hour-long debate by candidates for Oregon Secretary of State. And they resolved to endorse Governor Kate Brown for re-election in 2016; she is currently running unopposed.
Locked-out steelworkers at ATI in Albany got a boost at the convention. At the convention welcome party, it was announced that State Representative Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) will introduce a bill in February to extend unemployment benefits for locked out workers to 12 months (up from the current six months). And delegates twice passed the hat, raising over $2,700 for the ATI workers and striking ironworkers at Instafab.
“As long as we fight there is hope,” Chamberlain said. “This is our moment in history. Let’s fight for a change.”
PHOTOS OF THE CONVENTION: here.