Union members are running for office

A UNION BRIDGET TO CITY HALL? SEIU Local 503 member Micki Varney, a union shop steward at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, went through training at the union-sponsored Oregon Labor Candidate School. Now she’s trying to topple an incumbent Salem City Council member.

Tired of waiting for politicians to deliver? Union members are running for office themselves.

By Don McIntosh

Even in today’s Gilded Age of moneyed influence in politics, when working people get serious about democracy, boots on the ground can beat the billionaires. That belief is what motivates the Oregon Labor Candidate School, which has a five-year track record of training and assisting union members to run for public office. Twelve of the school’s alumni now hold elected office, including seats in the Oregon Legislature, city halls, and school boards. This May, another crop will appear on the  primary ballot:

  • DANA CARSTENSEN is a shop steward with Laborers Local 483 at the Oregon Zoo, and also works as a hazardous waste technician represented by AFSCME Local 3580. He’s running for a non-partisan seat on Metro, which runs the zoo. Metro District 4 runs north of TV Highway on the metro area’s outer West side. (danacarstensen.com)
  • DEB PATTERSON, a pastor at Smyrna United Church of Christ in Canby, is also a home care worker and member of SEIU Local 503. She’s running in the Democratic primary for a chance to challenge longtime Republican incumbent Jackie Winters in South Salem’s Senate District 10. (debpattersonor.org)
  • RACHEL PRUSAK, a nurse practitioner, member of Oregon Nurses Association, and vice president of Nurses for Single Payer, is running unopposed in the Democratic primary to challenge incumbent Republican Julie Parrish in West Linn’s House District 37. (rachelforstaterep.com)
  • MICHAEL ELLISON, an electrician and member of IBEW Local 280, is running unopposed for the Democratic nomination to challenge Republican incumbent Denyc Boles in Southeast Salem’s Republican-leaning House District 19. (mikeellisonfororegon.com)
  • MICKI VARNEY, a salmon biologist and chief steward for SEIU Local 503 at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, was once a city councilor in the tiny Eastern Washington town of Dayton. Now she’s running for Salem City Council, Ward 8, against incumbent Jim Lewis. (mickiforsalem.com)
  • DEAN TUCKER, a former timber feller who works as an appraiser in the Douglas County Assessor’s office, is running for his boss Roger Hartman’s job. After Hartman won election to the nonpartisan seat in 2014, Tucker and other employees joined Oregon AFSCME. Hartman later barred the wearing of union T-shirts in their Roseburg offices, among many other controversies. (tuckerforassessor.com)

Of course, union members don’t have to go to candidate  school to run for office. In Yamhill County, two other Oregon union members are making first-time runs for office:

  • JOSH ROJAS serves young people as a care coordinator for Yamhill County Health and Human Services. He’s also president of AFSCME Local 1422, and one of three candidates challenging incumbent Stan Primozich for Yamhill County Commission, Position 1. (facebook.com/RojasForYCC)
  • CHELSEY WILLIAMS is a shop steward in American Federation of Teachers Local 6069, which represents graduate student faculty at Oregon State University. She’s one of two candidates challenging incumbent Mary Starrett for Yamhill County Commission, Position 3. (chelseyforcommish.com)

Efforts similar to the Oregon Labor Candidate School are also under way in other states. The most successful is the New Jersey State AFL-CIO Labor Candidates School, which counts 965 union members elected to public office since it began in 1997. Thanks in part to its work, New Jersey’s state senate president is an Ironworker and the deputy majority leader in the state assembly is a member of IBEW. The group even helped send a journeyman wireman to Congress — former IBEW Local 351 business agent Donald Norcross.

The national AFL-CIO labor federation also teams up with local affiliates to offer a union candidate training program that it calls “Path to Power.” Last year, Path to Power trained 30 candidates in the state of Washington who were referred by the Washington State Labor Council (WSLC): Twenty-two ran for office, and 14 won election, including WSLC political director Teresa Mosqueda, who’s now a member of the Seattle City Council.


OREGON: Oregon Labor Candidate School candidate training events take place March 20 in Hermiston and April 14 in Eugene. A multi-session class Portland starts October. Find out more here.

WASHINGTON: The next candidate training for Washington union members will take place March 28-30 in Yakima. See here for details.

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