Stacy Chamberlain is Oregon AFSCME’s new executive director — confirmed by the union Executive Board July 29 after four months serving as interim executive director. Overseeing a staff of 62, Chamberlain is responsible for the interests of 27,000 public sector union members. She’s 42. She’s also vice president of the national union. A graduate of Portland State University and Willamette University College of Law, she lives in Southwest Portland with her eight-year old son. The Labor Press spoke with her Aug. 11 at Oregon AFSCME’s Portland headquarters.
What’s a union for?
It’s a vehicle to bring workers together to find their voice and power in the workplace.
What do you think private sector union members ought to know about public sector union members?
That we have more in common than we don’t. I think there’s a tendency sometimes to try to pit the public and private against each other or focus on areas where we don’t see eye to eye, and there are those issues, but in the grand scheme of things their fight is our fight and ours is theirs.
Your father, Tom Chamberlain, was an officer in the Portland Fire Fighters union. Today he’s president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. What did you learn about unions going up?
That the union isn’t a hobby; it’s a way of life. These were conversations we had at the dinner table. For my brother and I, going out marching or putting up lawn signs was just something that we did, and my dad would talk about bargaining and issues that he was dealing with at the workplace or in Salem. I remember in high school, my dad had one of those alpha-numeric pagers, and he got a page at dinner, which was not uncommon. He took the call. My dad is a very passionate man. He could be really intense at times. But I just remember him being very calm on the phone. It was a firefighter who had gotten himself into trouble and was probably going to lose his job. That firefighter was having the worst day of his life. A job is more than just a job. People have a lot of themselves wrapped up in having a job and providing for themselves and their family. So my dad realized that and talked him through it, and that guy knew because he was in the union that he had somebody with him, and it was going to be okay.
What does the world look like for Oregon AFSCME after Janus v. AFSCME is decided by the U.S. Supreme Court? [Janus v AFSCME is a case that seeks to bar any requirement that public sector workers pay dues or fees to their union to cover the costs of union representation.]
I think that’s the million-dollar question. Everybody is wondering what the impacts are going to be. For us, there are a number of things we need to do to engage our members. This is work we need to do no matter what. I think the better we are at engaging and reaching our members, the better off we are going to be when Janus hits. It’s also about letting our members know what it would look like not to have a union in the workplace. Janus might be “death by 1,000 paper cuts” to some organizations. We want to hit it square on, because you might have density right now at 85 percent, and then it’s 60 and then 50 and at some point your effectiveness and your strength and your ability to affect change in a way that benefits our members and the community goes away.
Despite the threat of Janus, I don’t see you packing your bags. What gives you hope?
Our staff and our members. We have faced bogeymen before, whether it’s [Bill] Sizemore [in the ‘90s] or the [anti-union group] Freedom Foundation now. After them it will be somebody else. As long as we have power, folks will come after us. So [what gives me hope] is having a good team and member leaders. Between now and June 2018 is crunch time, and all the work that we need to do now to get our members engaged and involved will pay off.
— Don McIntosh