By Don McIntosh
Oregon’s new top labor leader has worked mostly behind the scenes for the last 13 years — organizing, campaigning and lobbying on behalf of the Oregon AFL-CIO. But on Sept. 22 Graham Trainor, age 38, took the stage for the first time as president of the state labor federation after winning the unanimous support of delegates at its biennial convention.
His first day back in the federation’s Portland headquarters, he took time to talk with the Labor Press about his background and vision. The office door still bore the name of his predecessor and mentor, Tom Chamberlain. No figure has shaped Trainor professionally more than Chamberlain, and Trainor has every intention of building on Chamberlain’s approach: nurturing consensus among the AFL-CIO’s affiliated unions, partnering closely with outside allies, and promoting a broad political agenda for working people.
Trainor grew up in Knightstown, a town of 2,000 in rural east central Indiana. His mom was an elementary school teacher; his dad a bank salesperson. Free time was spent outdoors, hunting and fishing, backpacking and camping. Riding in combines with family friends at harvest time, Trainor wanted to be a farmer.
Instead, graduating with a communications degree from Indiana University in Bloomington, he found his calling as an organizer. Answering an ad for a job at the Hoosier Environmental Council, an environmental nonprofit in Indianapolis, he threw himself into a campaign against mercury pollution from the local power plant. Within a month he was running a crew of canvassers. That led to similar work for NARAL Pro-choice Minnesota, Citizen Action in New Jersey, and eventually, to Oregon in December 2005, where he got a job as state director of the Oregon chapter of Working America. Working America is the national AFL-CIO’s political organization for workers who don’t have a union in their workplace but agree with the aims of the labor movement.
His first day on the job, Trainor met Tom Chamberlain, then only recently installed as Oregon AFL-CIO president.
“I was blown away,” Trainor recalls. “He had a bold vision. And it’s been unwavering.”
Trainor arrived at a time when Oregon labor movement was preparing to fight a slew of hostile ballot measures. Working America became the paid canvass for the unified campaign against them.
“My job, about eight months after moving here, was to knock on 200,000 doors in 19 days.” With more than 200 paid canvassers, Working America met and exceeded that goal.
“We had an army, and we won. We swept that slate.”
Trainor was named canvass director of the year by the national Working America organization.
After the election, Working America slimmed down the Oregon canvass operation and repurposed it to generate live phone calls to keep pressure on legislators to pass a pro-worker agenda. In 2007, the fight was for a law making it easier for public sector workers to unionize.
In 2008, Chamberlain asked Trainor to come work directly for him at the Oregon AFL-CIO.
His first job was to figure out what the state federation could do to support organizing by affiliates. Trainor says that first effort to build an organizing program failed. Chamberlain tried again several years later; the second time around it bore fruit, winning a union for hundreds of workers in the first direct organizing program by a state labor federation.
Meanwhile, Trainor turned his attention to helping send Jeff Merkley to the U.S. Senate, winning a primary and then ousting long-time incumbent Republican U.S. Senator Gordon Smith.
It was a big year for the political operation Trainor had helped build — the Oregon labor movement also defeated Measure 64, sponsored by longtime union nemesis Bill Sizemore. It was the last directly anti-union ballot measure to go before Oregon voters.
“I like to say I had some role in sending Bill Sizemore packing,” Trainor says.
Lobbying for labor
After the election, Trainor showed an interest in lobbying, and under the supervision of then legislative director Duke Shepard, became a full-time labor lobbyist in the state Capitol. It was challenging, fun, intimidating, and daunting. His first year in Salem, the federation lobbied for a law barring employers from holding mandatory anti-union meetings.
In the years to come, Trainor served the Oregon AFL-CIO in numerous roles, as field director and as political director, leading the Oregon AFL-CIO’s electoral and legislative efforts. In 2017 he was made chief of staff.
When he learned that Chamberlain planned to retire at the end of his term, Trainor decided to run for the job. He talked with the leaders of large affiliates, seeking their advice about the future of the organization.
Trainor felt it was important that his co-leader be a woman, and wanted a slate that reflected the geographic diversity of the organization. Tipped off about a capable member leader in Medford, he visited Christy O’Neill and asked her to join him. The two of them launched their campaign in April with endorsements from close to 50% of Oregon AFL-CIO affiliates and the support of Chamberlain and Byrd. But they didn’t stop there.
“I’m a campaigner, so I went and built a campaign,” Trainor said.
Criss-crossing the state in Trainor’s Ford F-150, the two of them met with every affiliate and chapter they could find. By the time delegates arrived in Seaside for the convention Sept. 19, they had the formal endorsement of 95% of the affiliates. With no one else contending, they won by acclamation.
Looking to the next four years, Trainor thinks unity will be the necessary ingredient for success.
“Our power is rooted in our ability to keep consensus and an agenda moving forward,” Trainor said. “It requires strong relationships, trust, and value add to an affiliate.”
Trainor may be stepping in at a time of tumult, amid a mood of fightback, when there’s no such thing as business as usual.
’“Going along to get along is outdated,” Trainor said. “I think working people at the national level and in Oregon are so hungry for change because they’re finally at a point where they’ve been dealing with a rigged economy for so long, people are standing up and doing something about it. Boldness and action breeds more of the same.”
In his first speech as president, Trainor shared his impatience with small expectations.
“After one of our recent legislative victories, I had a funny thing happen,” Graham told delegates. “A politician asked me, ‘Is labor happy?’ I had a hard time not laughing at the question, and I was slightly offended, to be honest. Working people continue to fall further behind despite the booming economy, no matter how hard they work, and you think labor should be happy? I’ve got a couple things to say about anybody who might ask me that question in the future. Until the policy on the clean energy economy includes strong labor protections, the gender pay gap that disproportionately impacts women of color is corrected, LGBTQ workers are treated with the same dignity and respect afforded their cisgendered counterparts, labor won’t be happy. Until health care in our nation is treated as a human right, not a privilege, until all immigrant workers are treated with fairness and dignity, and until workers have an unfettered fair opportunity to join a union and bargain for a better life, labor won’t be happy.”
Oregon AFL-CIO’s new secretary-treasurer
Christy O’Neill, a 32-year old Head Start teacher in Medford, Oregon, is upfront about how she came into the union movement: She was “voluntold” to come to a union meeting — recruited, invited, and coaxed by co-workers who felt the union was important.
That was 2010. In 2013, O’Neill stepped up to lead her union local, AFSCME Local 2619, and in 2017, she was elected first vice president of statewide Oregon AFSCME. Last month she became secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, the powerful labor federation’s new number two officer. It’s an unpaid position, so O’Neill will continue to work with kids while staying active in the Southern Oregon labor movement.
O’Neill told the Labor Press she hopes other young women union members will follow her example. She’s also keen to make sure the state labor federation represents all corners of the state.
“We’re stronger together,” O’Neill said. “Unions are invaluable forces. They are your equalizer when it comes to speaking with management. And on a broader scale, unions can shape America.”