By Don McIntosh
SEASIDE, Oregon — Representing 134,105 members of 170 union locals in 38 international unions, 221 delegates gathered Sept. 19-22 for the Oregon AFL-CIO’s biennial convention. Over four days, they elected new leaders, bid farewell to outgoing ones, and marched in spirited protests in nearby Warrenton and Astoria.
Throughout, the mood was optimistic. A recent poll showed public support of unions at its highest level in decades. And a year after a teacher strike wave, 46,000 workers were on strike at GM and another 105,000 were getting ready to strike at Kaiser Permanente, grocery stores, and seven Oregon universities.
For nearly half the delegates, it was their first convention. Delegates learned new words, like “cisgender,” charted a new political course, and passed the torch of leadership to a new generation: President Tom Chamberlain, 65, and Secretary-Treasurer Barbara Byrd, 70, retired and were succeeded by Graham Trainor, 38, and Christy O’Neill, 32. [More about Graham and Christy here.]
Democrats’ PERS betrayal
The biggest thing missing at this year’s convention was Democratic politicians, except for a handful of labor allies who opposed a cut in public employee retirement benefits. For decades, state and local public employees have endured round after round of cuts and attempted cuts to their retirement benefits. But this year, the cuts came entirely courtesy of Democrats they’d helped to elect to the state House, Senate, and governor’s office. SB 1049 seized up to 2.5% of public employee compensation in order to pay down the unfunded pension liability caused by the 2008 financial market collapse.
Judging by the convention, Oregon union members aren’t likely to forget that any time soon. At the convention two years ago, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown spoke to a standing ovation and was endorsed on a near-unanimous voice vote. This time, she wasn’t even invited. Politicians are normally plentiful at an awards ceremony the night before the convention; this year only the honorees were present: State Sen. Kathleen Taylor (lawmaker of the year), State Rep Rachel Prusak (Rookie of the Year), and State Sen. Shemia Fagan (working family champion).
“What happened in Oregon is not just unfair; it is a betrayal,” national AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler told delegates. “How about we tax a millionaire instead of stealing from workers?”
The PERS vote wasn’t the only betrayal felt by labor in this year’s legislative session: Senate Democrats also spiked a prevailing wage expansion bill that passed the House. And neither chamber would consider a bill to penalize big companies that profit while sending their workers to the public safety net for food, housing and health care. No Democrat on the wrong side of those three items will get the Oregon AFL-CIO’s backing in the 2020 primary, under a politician accountability resolution passed at the convention.
Oregon labor has friends in the U.S. capitol, at least: U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was warmly welcomed at the convention, and presented a 10-point plan to save America. As he left the stage, a delegate made a motion to endorse him for re-election, which passed by an enthusiastic and unanimous vote.
Repudiating a ‘labor traitor’
As painful as it was to see Democrats cutting public retirement benefits, one betrayal hit even closer to home. Tim Nesbitt — when he was Oregon AFL-CIO president from 1998 to 2005 — took an oath to never knowingly wrong a fellow union member or see a member wronged if it were in his power to prevent it. That was then. Today—while continuing to refer to himself as a past president of the Oregon AFL-CIO — he’s one of the foremost voices lobbying to reduce pension benefits for Oregon public workers, and the mastermind behind an initiative aimed at the 2020 ballot that will slash benefits even further. At the convention, delegates loudly gave “aye” votes to a resolution condemning his actions as anti-worker and anti-union, demanding that he cease to refer to himself as past AFL-CIO president, and excluding him forever from any and all Oregon AFL-CIO events.
It’s impossible to imagine Chamberlain and Byrd ever going down that path. Again and again over the course of the convention, delegates and guests rose to give accolades to the two of them for their lifetime of service to the cause of organized labor —and to present them with plaques and other tokens of gratitude. Shuler credited Chamberlain for turning the Oregon AFL-CIO from an organization focused solely on politics to one that has come to serve as a “laboratory for organizing” and an example to other state labor federations. California AFL-CIO President Art Pulaski called Chamberlain the “happy organizer” and said that under Chamberlain and Byrd, the Oregon AFL-CIO has earned a reputation as the best state labor federation in America.
Byrd was feted not just with remembrances but with a hearty rendition of “Happy birthday to you,” because the date happened to coincide with her final day as secretary-treasurer. Presenting Byrd a framed print with a famed quote about bread and roses, Eugene delegate Pat Riggs-Henson wept and needed help from another delegate to finish her remarks.
Choking up occasionally in his farewell speech, Chamberlain spoke about his legacy and the fights ahead.
“Together we have redefined workers’ issues from wages, hours and working conditions to a broader vision: comprehensive immigration reform, gender and racial equity, inclusion, environmental issues, trade policy, LGBTQ, housing —any and all issues that impact the lives of working people, union and not.
“Like my favorite union song, it’s time to ask: ‘Which side are you on?’ Are you willing to hold electeds accountable, and those who betrayed you defeat them with an unshakable resolve? Which side are you on? Do those elected understand that the answer to the problems of this country is a good-paying union job? Which side are you on? Stop raiding our damn pensions, and start protecting and expanding benefits!
“Understand: We’re in a class war in this country for the very future of our nation, our children, and future generations.”
For many delegates, a highlight of the convention was an energetic back-to-back pair of demonstrations on Saturday: Four school buses transported about 150 delegates first to a Warrenton Fred Meyer to demand equal pay for women grocery workers, and then to the Astoria Labor Temple to call for a fair contract for nurses.
In Warrenton, a crew of women labor leaders dressed like Rosie the Riveter briefly took over a Fred Meyer store with a choreographed dance routine while singing a modified version of Aretha Franklin’s Respect. They were there to publicize grocery union UFCW Local 555’s finding that women are twice as likely as men to be assigned to a lower-paying wage scale at Fred Meyer, resulting in women grocery workers earning $1.31 an hour less on average. It was the second Fred Meyer flash mob organized by the group Oregon Women Labor Leaders (OWLL) and led by Oregon AFL-CIO organizer Alma Raya.
Next delegates held a rally and then marched through downtown Astoria in support of nurses in the Oregon Nurses Association (ONA) who have been struggling to get an acceptable union contract at Columbia-Memorial Hospital. For nurses, the arrival and departure of the buses was an emotional moment; some were near tears. In the parking lot outside the Labor Temple, unionists were joined by U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, whose wife is a member of ONA. They then took to the streets, chanting and singing the call-and-response marching cadence song “We are the nurses … the mighty mighty nurses … fighting for our patients … and a fair contract!” ONA members had worked hard to build community support, and many shop windows already had “We Support CMH nurses” posted. Now Commercial Street became a river of honking cars and upraised fists.
Remember the long-ago (or maybe recent) English class where you learned parts of speech, like nouns, verbs, adjectives and so on? A pronoun is one of them. It’s a word that replaces a noun in a sentence. Examples include he, she, we, I, and they.
The 2019 Oregon AFL-CIO convention featured a panel discussion entitled, “Pronouns Matter.” Moderated by Oregon AFSCME member Dominic Lopez of Basic Rights Oregon, it was made up of transgender and non-gender-binary union members: Zackariah Sloane of Oregon AFSCME, Sam Hughes of UFCW Local 555 and A.J. Mendoza of CWA Local 7901.
Panelists discussed evolving thinking and customs about gender. Some people feel they are a different gender than the one people might assume them to be; they may ask others to use a gendered pronoun such as “he” or “she” that corresponds to how they see themselves. Other people, referred to as “non-gender-binary,” may feel that neither male nor female describes them; they may ask that others use the pronoun “they” when referring to them. Panelists said union members can make transgender and non-gender-binary people feel more welcome by trying to refer to them using the pronouns they prefer.
Panelists also presented new terminology, like the word cisgender, which refers to a person whose sense of their gender matches the sex they were assumed to be at birth (Most people are cisgender, in other words.) About half the delegates in the audience raised their hands when asked if they’d never heard some of the terms presented.
Before panelists even took the stage, delegates passed without opposition a resolution intended to make the Oregon AFL-CIO a more welcoming environment for transgender and gender-non-conforming people. The resolution says the Oregon AFL-CIO will advocate for legislation to protect transgender and gender nonconforming people from discrimination and harassment. It also encourages affiliates and partners to use gender-inclusive language such as “union family,” “sibling,” or “cousin” wherever “brother” or “sister” is spoken, as is the union custom. The resolution took effect immediately, and speakers began trying out different phrases as the convention proceeded.
- Legislator of the year: State Senator Kathleen Taylor
- Rookie of the Year: State Representative Rachel Prusak
- Working Family Champion: State Senator Shemia Fagan
- Printing powerhouse award: UFCW
- Leading by example award: Karl Koenig, IAFF state council and Brian Smith, IAFF 1660
- Pat Quigley Award: Nate Stokes of Operating Engineers Local 701
- Most new members: AFT-Oregon, which organized OSU faculty and grad students
- Innovative organizing award: to Oregon AFSCME for behavioral health industry
- Tenacious organizer award: OFNHP for rapid growth among techs and others
President Graham Trainor
Secretary-treasurer Christy O’Neill
- Jeff Anderson, UFCW 555
- Garth Bachman, IBEW 48
- Robert Camarillo, Oregon Building Trades
- Stacey Chamberlain, Oregon AFSCME
- Lisa Gourley, OSEA
- Jon Hunt, ATU 757
- Karl Koenig, IAFF
- Deborah Riddick, ONA
- Bob Tackett, Steelworkers 330
- Noel Willet, IAM W24
At-large Board members
- James Anderson, Operating Engineers 701
- Marcia Blaine, AFGE
- Lou Christian, UA 290
- Dan Clay, UFCW 555
- Daniel Cortez, APWU
- Zack Culver, LiUNA 737
- Jim Kilborn, Steelworkers
- Jeff Klatke, Oregon AFSCME
- Drew Lindsey, IBEW 280
- Pat McMahon, CWA 7906
- David Norton, NALC
- Wayne Thompson, IAM
- Rose Etta Venetucci, IATSE
- Alan Yoder, ONA
CLC and constituency group reps
- Jim Gourley, Linn-Benton-Lane CLC
- Rodney McCambridge, AFSCME
- Jeff McGillivray, UA 290
- Ateusa Salemi, ONA
- Tina Turner Morfitt, CBTU
- Sanction a traitor: Former Oregon AFL-CIO president Tim Nesbitt is condemned for exploiting his past union leadership role to advance an agenda of cutting public employee pensions, and barred from all future Oregon AFL-CIO events.
- Defend PERS: The Oregon AFL-CIO will oppose Nesbitt’s proposed ballot initiative to cut public employee retirement benefits further.
- Hold politicians accountable: No state legislator who voted to cut public worker retirement benefits will get endorsement or help in the May 2020 primary, and the Oregon AFL-CIO will revise its endorsement procedure for the 2020 general election to include a more stringent process for legislators who didn’t stand with workers during the 2019 Legislative Session.
- Defend transgender rights: The Oregon AFL-CIO will advocate for legislation to protect transgender people from discrimination and harassment.
- Make health care a human right: The Oregon AFL-CIO continues its membership in the Health Care for All Oregon coalition.
- The safety net isn’t supposed to be corporate welfare: Support a ballot initiative to tax companies if they pay so little that lots of their employees are on public assistance.
- Support the Green New Deal, with labor standards: The Oregon AFL-CIO will support climate legislation when it includes requirements for union neutrality, project labor agreements, prevailing wage, apprenticeship training opportunities, and a just transition making whole any workers who would lose jobs because of it.
- Immigrant rights are workers rights: The Oregon AFL-CIO will form an immigration work group, make sure immigrant rights are considered when developing new public policy, and oppose all anti-immigrant policy proposals or attacks.
- Drivers licenses for immigrants: The Oregon AFL-CIO will defend a 2019 law allowing undocumented Oregonians to get driver’s licenses from attack on the ballot or in the legislature.
- Defend tax increase on cigarettes and e-cigarettes: The Oregon AFL-CIO will support at legislative referral that would raise an estimated $175 million a year to pay for health care and tobacco and nicotine prevention campaigns.
And while they were at it …
No union convention would be complete without a passing of the hat. At the 2019 convention, a raffle raised $6,175 for the federation’s political program. And at a meet-and-greet hospitality suite hosted by Trainor and O’Neill, volunteer bartender Rob Martineau put out a basket and raised $300 in tips for the immigrant civil rights group Causa.
See more photos of the convention here!