By Don McIntosh
SUNRIVER, Oregon—It was the first union convention to take place in Oregon since COVID-19 hit in March 2020. Sixty-five delegates—representing over 30,000 members of 27 local unions—assembled Sept. 14-16 at Central Oregon’s Sunriver Resort for the 59th Convention of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council (OSBCTC). They gave Tina Kotek her first significant endorsement for Oregon governor, voted to ensure that the council and its political action committee will have adequate staff and resources, and re-elected the council’s leadership to new four-year terms.
Like at its previous conventions, the agenda was full of opportunities to hear from guests and allies, like regular attendee Val Hoyle, Oregon’s Labor Commissioner. Hoyle reported on the many ways her agency is ramping up enforcement of labor laws. For example, her division chief Sonia Ramirez is trying to be more strategic in enforcing wage and hour laws.
“It’s not dinging someone if they’re slightly out of ratio for apprenticeship,” Hoyle said. Instead it’s going after employers who are repeatedly stealing wages.
“Somebody said to me, ‘It’s not like fines change behavior.’ Well, they’re not fining them enough,” Hoyle told delegates. “We want them to see that it’s going to be more expensive to break a law than it is to follow it. And that means all the contractors that are following the rules don’t have to compete with these bottom feeders that have been getting an unfair advantage.”
Hoyle also said she’s working on an agreement with the Multnomah County District Attorney’s office to prosecute employers who break wage and hour laws. In 2016, the Oregon Legislature made it a felony for a contractor to knowingly violate the state prevailing wage law, but no such criminal cases have been pursued since then.
“We are going to criminally prosecute these bottom feeders who have been getting away for years at stealing from workers,” Hoyle said.
Kotek’s first big endorsement
Besides Hoyle, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek was the highest profile state official to attend the convention in person this year, and Kotek validated what a groundbreaking year 2021 was for building trades unions in the State Capitol. Lawmakers approved a new and simpler way of setting the state prevailing wage based on whatever the union rate is. They extended the right to paid sick leave to construction workers who are dispatched through union hiring halls. They made it clear that it’s legal and acceptable for cities, counties, and school districts to sign project labor agreements (PLAs) on public construction projects. And they ensured that upcoming state-funded higher ed construction projects will have PLAs.
“We’re setting new expectations of how we do public contracting here in the state,” Kotek told delegates.
Kotek wrapped up with remarks about the climate crisis that drew applause from the building trades union delegates.
“The climate crisis is upon us, whether it’s the wildfires that devastate our communities … or the fact that we have neighbors in our communities dying from heat waves. It’s here, and you all know that.”
This year Oregon lawmakers passed HB 2021, which mandates that electric utilities provide 100% clean energy by 2040. Kotek said she had to fight with the Oregon Senate to make sure that investments in renewable energy come with labor standards requiring health and other benefits to workers on those jobs, and opportunities for apprentices.
“There are people who say we can’t take on the crisis around climate because it’s going to kill good jobs. Well, I don’t believe that.… We can have good jobs, and fight climate crisis together, and we have to, for our children’s children, and for the safety of our planet.”
With Kotek still on stage, Painters District Council 5 delegate Dave Winkler went to the mic to make a motion to endorse her campaign for governor. The vote was immediate and unanimous, handing Kotek the first major endorsement since she announced her run for governor on Sept. 1. The move to endorse wasn’t totally spontaneous: OSBCTC’s Executive Board had discussed the question that morning and recommended endorsement based on Kotek’s outstanding record of going to bat for the trades.
By no means did Kotek accomplish all of that alone, and building trades leaders celebrated other legislators too, including three who addressed delegates in person: State Sen. James Manning of Eugene; Senate Majority Leader Rob Wagner of Lake Oswego; and freshman State Rep. Jason Kropf of Bend, all Democrats. Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney also advocated for the building trades in the Legislature, as a fierce advocate of project labor agreements. Berney had previously insisted Lane County use a project labor agreement, he told delegates, and it was a resounding success, coming in under budget.
Why politics matters
Delegates also got an earful about what’s at stake in the political arena during a panel on the council’s history. The panel included former state building trades leaders Bob Shiprack and John Mohlis, and retired Pendleton building trades leader George Gritz.
“How important is politics to the building trades?” moderator Wayne Chow asked the panelists. Drawing on generations of experience, panelists poured forth war stories about the early 1980s, when newly emboldened anti-union groups sponsored a ballot initiative to repeal the state prevailing wage. In response, building trades unions united as if survival was at stake, and they defeated the measure by a wide margin in every county in the state. Gritz then shared what could happen when building trades unions lose a big battle: Idaho once had a strong union movement, but in 1985 it passed anti-union right-to-work legislation, followed by repeal of the state’s prevailing wage law. Idaho building trades union locals were crushed. Many ceased to exist entirely. And construction industry wages there plummeted and never recovered.
One sign that the building trades council and its affiliates have continued to be politically consequential in Oregon is the number of elected officials who drop by to declare their support. This year, there were fewer than usual because of the continuing pandemic, but altogether 14 office-holders addressed delegates in person or by video, including an address via Zoom by state treasurer Tobias Read and recorded messages from Oregon Governor Kate Brown and U.S. Senators Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley. Read had earlier come in for praise when national building trades president Sean McGarvey applauded his passage of a policy that requires the use of responsible construction contractors on projects that are funded by Oregon public pension dollars.
Former Multnomah County Commissioner Loretta Smith also asked delegates to support her in her upcoming campaign for Congress in Oregon’s not-yet-formed Sixth Congressional District. Smith is the only candidate seeking that seat so far. [On Sept. 27, the Oregon Legislature approved — and the governor signed — two measures to redraw the boundaries of Oregon’s congressional and legislative districts.]
The convention is also a chance for trades leaders to build community, with evening social gatherings and a golf tournament on Day 2. At the close of the convention, the council dispensed dozens of raffle prizes, and announced the award of two $1,000 college scholarships: one to Alexandra Kimberling, daughter of Plumbers & Fitters Local 290 business agent John Kimberling; and the other to Maria Luna Vargas, daughter of Iron Workers Local 29 member Israel Luna Vargas. It was Vargas’ second time getting the scholarship.
All nominees were unopposed and were declared elected by acclamation. They’ll serve four-year terms that run through the 2025 convention.
- Executive Secretary-Treasurer Robert Camarillo (Iron Workers Local 29)
- President Lou Christian (Plumbers & Fitters Local 290)
- Vice President Russ Garnett (Roofers Local 49)
- Sergeant-at-arms Randy Carmony (Elevator Constructors Local 23)
- Conductor Brian Noble (Sheet Metal Local 16)
- Trustees Matt Eleazer (Bricklayers Local 1); David Winkler (Painters District Council 5); James ‘Jimbo’ Anderson (Operating Engineers Local 701); Geoff Kossak (Cement Masons Local 555); Zach Culver (Laborers Local 737); Garth Bachman (IBEW Local 48); and Brent Stephens (Boilermakers Local 242)
BE IT RESOLVED …
Oregon building trades delegates passed five resolutions this year. Here’s a summary.
- SUPPORT STAFF—Renew and extend support for the part-time political special projects coordinator position [to add capacity, IBEW Local 48 president Wayne Chow was hired in 2020.]
- INCREASE INVESTMENT IN POLITICAL ACTION—Empower the heads of each affiliated international union to convene by Dec. 1 to decide whether and how much to increase contributions to OSBCTC’s political action committee, Oregonians To Maintain Community Standards, and then review that yearly. The affiliate leaders will have the discretion to increase it as much as double the current assessment of $1 per member per month. The PAC has been funded at $1 per member per month since it was created in 1993; adjusted for inflation, that would be $1.89 today.
- TOOL UP TO FIGHT WAGE THEFT—Declare that it’s a priority for the council to pass legislation requiring contractors on public works projects to file formal statements of intent to pay prevailing wage and affidavits swearing to compliance. Washington has such an “intents and affidavits” system, and it’s seen as an effective way to reduce wage misclassification and other violations of prevailing wage law. [Resolution sponsored by Cement Masons Local 555.]
- ENSURE STABLE AND ADEQUATE FUNDING—Establish a committee to look at how other state building trades councils are funded, and come back at the 2023 convention with a report and recommendations to ensure strong and stable financing. Currently OSBCTC is funded with a contribution by affiliates of $1.85 per member per month.
- BUILD A MORE WELCOMING INDUSTRY CULTURE—Support and sign the “Safe from Hate” pledge. In the wake of a job site noose incident in Portland last year, local building trades unions, general contractors, and big construction project owners have been meeting to talk about ways to improve construction culture so that it’s free from hate speech and harassment, and more welcoming to women and minority workers. [Resolution sponsored by Willy Myers of Columbia Pacific Building Trades Council.] [MORE about the Safe From Hate effort here.]