By Don McIntosh
One of Oregon’s best-known labor leaders, Ken Allen, is retiring July 31. Allen, 62, is executive director of 25,000-member Oregon AFSCME (the statewide council for the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees).
An Oregon native, he began his 42-year-career in the labor movement with a stint at the United Farm Workers in Massachussetts. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he worked for unions in Massachussetts and Oregon, including the hospital workers union known as 1199; United Electrical Workers (where he was an underground union organizer and staff rep); Oregon State Employees Association (later SEIU Local 503); and AFSCME. He went to work for AFSCME permanently in 1987, as a union rep, and became executive director in 1995.
Under his leadership, Oregon AFSCME added about 10,000 members. Over the years, he led many contract negotiations for state employees, instigated pioneering union organizing efforts among family child care providers, and helped put together the Fair Shot Coalition that won paid sick leave and other victories in Oregon.
In retirement, he’ll continue to serve as a governor-appointed member of the board of directors of Oregon Health and Science University.
I interviewed him June 6 in a temporary underground office at Oregon AFSCME headquarters.
How did you get started in the labor movement? I grew up in Salem, Oregon, so I worked picking strawberries and beans when I was a kid. At University of Massachusetts Amherst, I hooked up with the United Farm Workers grape and lettuce boycott in 1973. I had seen the conditions that migrant farmworkers worked under in the Salem area, so I dropped out of college to work full-time on the boycott. My piece was organizing trade union support of the boycott in Western Massachusetts, because I came from a union family. My dad and grandparents were IWA out of Coos Bay, and my dad was AWPPW in Salem. He was a lumber mill worker, then a paper mill worker. I walked picket lines when I was five years old with my dad. Then AWPPW struck when I was a teenager, and Dad’s best friend scabbed. It was actually a family that we socialized with. And we never saw that family again. He never talked to that scab again. So there were some life lessons.
What’s it like to become the old guard? I first became aware of it in 2004 when we were challenged in the first Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) lawsuit. I was the old-timer that knew about the PERS tradeoff that happened in 1979 to 1981, when the union workers traded some wage increases for the 6 percent pickup [Ed. note: In lieu of raises, the employer picked up the required employee pension contribution.] For the old guard, there’s a time to turn things over to a younger group, and people should recognize that instead of just trying to hang on. I probably haven’t lost any skill in negotiations, but I’ve done some 100-hour work weeks, and I can’t do those any more.
What’s the biggest myth some members of the public have about public employees? Public workers work just as hard as private sector workers. It’s bullshit to think they don’t. I’ve represented them both in my lifetime. Public service workers are dedicated to their work and they work just as hard as private sector workers.
What advice do you have for other union leaders? I think it’s important for people at my level, directors, to continue to be directly involved in organizing and first contract campaigns, because it keeps the fire in your belly. There’s nothing more important than having that fire in your belly, and you get that from workers who don’t have a union. You find out how shitty it is, and then you do the work to get that first contract and improve their lives, and see leaders develop. That’s what’s rewarding about the work.
Why do public employees need union representation? I think all workers need union representation. The wealthy and the CEOs, the corporate elite, are getting greedier and are treating workers worse and worse. I’m not surprised by the 15 Now movement. I think labor’s going to be on the upswing so long as people are willing to be creative and try to organize in different ways.