By Don McIntosh
The presidential race is still undecided as this posts, but with votes remaining to count in Atlanta and Philadelphia, it looks like Joe Biden will be the next president. Organized labor, as a big Biden backer, is winning alongside him. Biden courted union support, and pledged to support sweeping legislation that would make it easier for workers to unionize. But that agenda may have to wait at least two years. If the U.S. Senate remains in Republican control, as appears likely, Biden would be the first president in 30 years to enter the White House without his party in power in the House and Senate. Still, there’s much President Biden can do as head of the executive branch, including reversing Trump executive orders that stripped federal workers of union rights, and putting pro-worker appointees in charge of the Labor Department, OSHA, and the National Labor Relations Board. Two union leaders are on the Biden transition team’s 15-member advisory board: IBEW president Lonnie Stephenson and United Farm Workers president Teresa Romero. Also on the team is Jared Bernstein, a former Biden advisor associated with the pro-union think tank Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.
Nationwide ballot measure highlights
Meanwhile, ballot measures around the country put a pro-worker agenda into law—in some cases.
- Minimum wage: In Florida, voters approved Amendment 2 by 61%, raising the minimum wage from its $8.56 to $10 next year, then $1 a year until it reaches $15 an hour in 2026 (and by inflation thereafter).
- Paid leave: In Colorado, Proposition 118—passed by 57%—gives workers 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave, funded by a payroll tax paid split between employers and employees.
- Tax fairness: In Arizona, Proposition 208 passed with 52% support: Backed by the teachers union and the Arizona AFL-CIO, it levies an additional 3.5% income tax on income above $250,000/$500,000 (single/joint) to fund teacher salaries and training. But in Illinois, a constitutional amendment to allow a progressive graduated income tax failed with just 45% support (Illinois’ state income tax is currently a flat rate for all income.)
- Payday lending limit: Nebraska voters overwhelmingly (83%) approved Initiative 428, limiting the annual interest on payday loans to 36%.
- Golden State defeats: But in California, money still talks. In a huge defeat for organized labor, voters approved Proposition 22 by 58%. Led by Uber, Lyft, Instacart, DoorDash, and Postmates, supporters spent $205 million on the measure, setting a record for the most expensive ballot measure in U.S. history. It exempts app-based drivers and delivery workers from a union-backed law the California Assembly passed last year that requires them to be treated as employees. Also failing narrowly was Proposition 15, which would have based commercial property taxes on market value, partially overturning the infamous 1978 property tax limitation measure Prop 13. And Proposition 21, which would have loosened restrictions on local governments enacting rent control, went down badly with just 40% support.
In Oregon, voter turnout set an all-time record high, with 81.2% of registered voters returning their ballots. That included over 88% of registered Democrats, 88% of registered Republicans, and 60% of nonaffiliated voters. All told, 2.4 million Oregonians turned in ballots. When they were counted, Oregon’s labor movement tallied both wins and losses.
Union leaders worried that longtime pro-labor Democrat Peter DeFazio might lose to well-funded celebrity challenger Alek Skarlatos. But in the end DeFazio won reelection with 52% of the vote despite $4.5 million in mostly out-of-state money backing Skarlatos, a National Guard member who came to fame for helping stop a terrorist on a train while on vacation in France.
The other labor-endorsed incumbent Democrats—Senator Jeff Merkley and U.S. Representatives Earl Blumenauer, Suzanne Bonamici—won easily.
Labor also celebrated Shemia Fagan’s strong win for Oregon Secretary of State (51%, against 43% for Republican Kim Thatcher). Fagan has been a union ally and a bold figure in Oregon politics; now she’ll be in charge of enforcing election laws and auditing state agencies, and next in line for governor in case of a vacancy. The other two statewide races were won by union-endorsed Democratic incumbents: State Treasurer Tobias Read (52%) and Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum (57%).
As is so often the case in Oregon, some of the most impactful votes were on ballot measures. Union-backed Ballot Measure 110, which decriminalizes drug possession and aims to make drug treatment available on demand, won with 59% support. Voters also approved, by 67%, Measure 108’s $2-per-pack increase in cigarette taxes to fund health care and tobacco prevention, and by 56% a measure legalizing the supervised therapeutic use of psychoactive mushrooms; both measures also had some union support.
The most consequential measure may end up being Measure 107, which allows limits to political campaign contributions. The Oregon Supreme Court has historically treated money in politics as protected free speech, with the result that Oregon politics swims in money, almost more than any other state. For example, roughly $2.7 million was contributed in the Senate District 10 contest between Deb Patterson and Denyc Boles, to influence just under 68,000 votes, coming to almost $40 per vote. Oregon is one of just 5 states that doesn’t limit political donations. With Oregonians having voted resoundingly (79%) to amend the Constitution to allow it, the Legislature will now have a chance to impose reasonable limits.
Portland-area ballot measures were also mostly wins for local unions: A levy to support operations at Portland parks and recreation centers passed by 64%, and will result in restoration of jobs for members of Laborers Local 483. A Multnomah County Library bond to build a new library in Gresham passed by 60%. And a $310 million Portland Public Schools bond renewal to rebuild and retrofit schools passed by 75%.
The most momentous local ballot measure win is likely to be Multnomah County’s Preschool For All measure. Approved by 64% of county voters, it will raise $132 million a year to make tuition-free preschool available to all Multnomah County 3- and 4-year-olds in the years to come, funded by an income tax on the highest income county residents. It will also more than double wages for preschool teachers and assistants, and guarantee their unobstructed right to unionize.
But the big loss was Measure 26-218. The Metro transportation bond would have raised $4 billion through a 0.75% payroll tax for road, light rail, and other transportation investments, securing an estimated 37,500 construction jobs in the economically uncertain years ahead. It failed, with 46% support, despite $1.3 million in support from unions, union contractors, and a coalition of community and environmental groups. IBEW and Operating Engineers each contributed $100,000, and cash and in-kind contributions from UFCW Local 555 totaled $73,000. But businesses, particularly Nike and Intel, spent over $2 million campaigning against the measure, and flooded mailboxes and media with efforts to label the payroll tax as a “wage tax.” Adding to the sting, union-backed political nonprofit Our Oregon supported the measure, but the “Stop the Metro Wage Tax” campaign was overseen by its former director, political operative Kevin Looper.
Hopes of securing a walkout-proof Democratic majority in the Oregon House and Senate appeared to come up short. The Republican minority has now walked out of the Oregon Legislature at least four times in the last two years, stopping all legislation from passing. They’re able to do that because of an unusual quorum clause in the Oregon Constitution that requires two-thirds of lawmakers to be present in order for any bill to be considered. Going into election day, Democrats held an 18-12 majority in the state senate and a 38-22 majority in the house, so to prevent the walkouts without changing the state constitution, they’d have to pick up two seats in each chamber. Instead, they held steady in the senate and lost one seat in the house.
In the Oregon Senate, Democrats broke even, gaining a seat in Salem, but losing one on the Southern Oregon coast. They’ll have a 18-12 majority next year when the new legislature is seated. SEIU Local 503 member and Oregon Labor Candidate School graduate Deb Patterson beat Republican incumbent Denyc Boles in Senate District 10 (Salem). [NOTE: This race was very close, and Patterson was 387 votes ahead as of Nov. 6.] But in Senate District 5 (Coos Bay), Democrat Melissa Cribbins came 2 points short of Republican Dick Anderson in the race to succeed Democrat Arnie Roblan. Meanwhile, in Senate District 27 (Bend), union-backed Democratic challenger Eileen Kiely came just 1,500 votes short of defeating Republican incumbent Tim Knopp, who also had some union support.
In the Oregon House, Democrats gained a seat in Bend, but lost two on the Oregon coast, ending with a 37-22 majority. The pick-up was House District 54 (Bend), where Democrat Jason Kropf beat incumbent Republican Cheri Helt. Labor also celebrated an easy 68% win by firefighters union activist and Oregon Labor Candidates School graduate Dacia Grayber in House District 35 (Tigard). And union nurse Rachel Prusak won re-election with 60% against a well-funded Republican challenger. But Oregon Labor Candidates School graduate Jackie Leung got just 47% in her challenge to incumbent Republican Raquel Moore-Green in in House District 19 (Salem). Democrat Lynnette Shaw got 42% in her challenge to Republican Ron Noble in House District 24 (McMinnville). Worse yet, labor-backed Democrats lost two seats that had been held by Democrats who chose not to run again. AFSCME member Debbie Boothe-Schmidt fell short with 46% for the seat in House District 32 (Astoria) that was held by SEIU member Tiffiny Mitchell. And Democrat Cal Mukumoto got 42% in the race to succeed Democrat Caddy McKeown in House District 9 (Coos Bay). Meanwhile Ashton Simpson, backed by five unions and running on the Working Families Party ballot line, got just 19% in his challenge to incumbent Democrat Diego Hernandez in East Portland’s House District 47; Hernandez faces allegations of sexual and workplace harassment, and didn’t actively campaign, but won 50% of the vote; Republican Ryan Gardner got 31%. In what proved to be the closest race in the House, incumbent Democrat and former union official Brad Witt came within 1 percentage point and 500 votes of losing to challenger Brian Stout in House District 31 (Clatskanie).
Local labor unions also issued endorsements in nearly 50 nonpartisan county, city, and local government races in Oregon. The biggest were the city-wide races in Portland, Metro, and metro-area races for county commission.
In the Metro regional government, union-backed candidates prevailed: Gerritt Rosenthal in District 3 (SW) with 52%, and Mary Nolan in District 5 (N/NE/NW) with 62%.
And union-endorsed candidates for county commission also won in Clackamas and Washington counties, securing a narrow majority in each case for more pro-labor policies. That included incumbent Ken Humberston in Clackamas County,
who won with 53% [UPDATE: Humberston fell to 49% in late-counted votes.] against a well-funded challenge, and Nafisa Fai in Washington County, who won with 58%. In Columbia County, union-backed incumbent commissioner Alex Tardif was defeated by Casey Garrett, a county parks director who’s had run-ins with employees and the county union. And in Lane County, union-backed Laurie Trieger won a commission seat with 54%. And in Marion County, Ashley Carson Cottingham fell short with 45%.
In Portland, union-backed incumbent mayor Ted Wheeler won with 46% of the vote, ahead of challenger Sarah Iannarone (41%) and a write-in effort that may have reached 13% for Teressa Raiford. Meanwhile, Mingus Mapps beat incumbent Chloe Eudaly 56-43; each had union support, but Mapps had more.
And in Beaverton, challenger Lacey Beaty got 53% and beat longtime mayor Denny Doyle; both had union support, but Beaty had more.
In Gresham, where a union-backed slate contended for all open positions, Dina DiNucci and Vince Jones Dixon won, but Dave Dyk lost, and the mayor’s race is too close to call, with Eddy Morales trailing Travis Stovall.
Washington also appeared to set a record for turnout: 73.28%.
In the Congressional District 3 race in Southwest Washington, union-backed Democratic challenger Carolyn Long once again fell short of unseating Republican Jaime Herrera-Beutler; Long finished with 45% support, less than the 47% she got in 2018.
In statewide races, labor-backed incumbent Democrats easily won election, including governor Jay Inslee (58%), state auditor Pat McCarthy (60%), and attorney general Bob Ferguson (58%). In open seats, labor-backed candidates Mike Pellicciotti won for treasurer (55%), Chris Reykdal for superintendent of public instruction (56%), and Hilary Franz for public lands commissioner (58%), but Gael Tarleton lost to Republican Kim Wyman for secretary of state. For lieutenant governor, where both candidates had union support, Denny Heck outpolled Marko Liias 47-34.
In the state legislature, Democrats looked likely to add several state house seats and three state senate seats, but also lost one in Southwest Washington.
In Legislative District 17 (Eastside Vancouver), Daniel Smith fell short with 47% in an effort to unseat incumbent state senator Republican Lynda Wilson. But with 50.5% support, it looked like union-backed Democrat Tanisha Harris was on track to beat incumbent Vicki Kraft, whose day job is fighting unions at labor arch-nemesis Freedom Foundation.
In Legislative District 18 (Clark County), all three union-backed Democratic challengers fell short: Rick Bell (43% against state senator Ann Rivers), and Kassandra Bessert (41%) and Donna Sinclair (45%) for state rep.
In Legislative District 18 (Longview to Aberdeen), all three labor-backed Democrats lost: incumbent state senator Dean Takko (45%), incumbent state rep Brian Blake (48%), and nurse union member Marianna Everson (41%)
In Legislative District 49 (Vancouver), all three union-endorsed incumbent Democrats won easily: state senator Annette Cleveland (59%), and state reps Sharon Wylie (65%) and Monica Stonier (64%).
For Clark County Council, union-endorsee Jesse James appeared to be narrowly winning a seat with 50.22%, but Matt Little lost with 44%.