By COLIN STAUB
The 56th annual Oregon AFL-CIO convention in Portland March 18-20 was the first in-person AFL-CIO gathering since the pandemic hit, the first convention helmed by president Graham Trainor and secretary-treasurer Christy O’Neill, and their first union event at the union-built and union-operated Hyatt Regency hotel in Portland. All told, it drew 257 labor delegates and guests.
“The labor movement is showing a whole new generation of workers that unions are the place to make change,” said keynote speaker Liz Shuler, president of the national AFL-CIO. “And it’s up to us to harness that energy and show other workers that are struggling with the same low pay, the same hazardous working conditions, the same discrimination and toxic work culture, that there’s a home for them in the labor movement, that there’s hope for them in the labor movement. And working people are seeing it.”
Workers in demand, and strike energy is growing
Since the beginning of COVID, when mass layoffs led to staggering unemployment, the employment equation has flipped. The U.S. economy is on track to return to pre-pandemic job levels before the end of this year, Economic Policy Institute vice president Naomi Walker told delegates. Unemployment is now at a longtime low, and there is a huge demand for workers, but fewer workers available.
“That is fantastic for bargaining power,” Walker said, because it forces employers to raise wages.
Something else that’s great for bargaining power? Striking, or the threat of it. One lively panel discussion featured participants in recent high-stakes contract campaigns: a grocery worker, a Nabisco baker, a Kaiser-Permanente nurse, a union rep for film studio mechanics, and a player in the National Women’s Soccer League (NWSL). They each won contracts with employers, some through striking and others coming close. And when Portland Nabisco bakery workers walked off the job last summer, union members at all those other workplaces showed up on the strike line in solidarity.
Donna Marks, a member of Bakers Local 364 at Nabisco, said support from the fellow unions and the Democratic Socialists of America was the key to winning a new nationwide contract that ended the month-long strike.
“Had we been alone, I don’t know that we would have lasted,” Marks said.
The other major Oregon strike last year was at UFCW-represented Fred Meyer/Kroger, a one-day event that resulted in higher wage increases for grocery workers. OFNHP-represented Kaiser nurses and IATSE-represented studio mechanics came close to a strike during the fall. And the NWSL Players Association ratified an agreement hours before their playing season was set to begin.
Wyden and Merkley report
Both of Oregon’s U.S. senators updated delegates on their priorities in Congress.
Senator Ron Wyden laid out his plan to build on unemployment insurance through the unemployment overhaul he introduced in Congress last year. Wyden wants to tie benefits to economic conditions, so that extended weeks of unemployment insurance would be triggered when the unemployment rate reaches a certain threshold, for example. He also wants to expand benefits to provide assistance to unemployed workers who aren’t covered by traditional unemployment insurance, like self-employed workers.
Senator Jeff Merkley said union workers will be critical in upcoming projects, particularly the infrastructure package that will bring good-paying jobs for union trade workers. Everything in the infrastructure bill is subject to Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rules.
Merkley also urged unions to “seize this moment” of excitement around union representation, and seek to “organize everything we can.”
“There’s a fever in the blood right now to make things better,” he said.
Green jobs, even in Texas
Since the last convention, Oregon has seen devastating wildfires and extreme heat, creating a crisis atmosphere around climate change. Yet here and elsewhere some union members fear that responding to climate change will end their jobs. Nowhere was that more the case than in Texas, where 450,000 workers are employed in the fossil fuel industry.
Yet Texas AFL-CIO President Rick Levy told Oregon delegates it’s possible to transition to clean energy while preserving employment, and said the work his labor federation did offers a blueprint for other states. The work started when the Texas AFL-CIO endorsed two candidates who were pro-union and also supported the Green New Deal. After the endorsement, one union affiliated with the state AFL-CIO prepared to leave the organization in protest of policies that could end members’ jobs. But instead of accepting the departure, Levy asked them to stay and join a task force to determine how organized labor should respond to climate change.
Out of those frank discussions came the Texas Climate Jobs Project, a nonprofit with a plan to bring fossil fuel workers into the green economy. The first campaign to come out of its recommendations is the Carbon-Free Schools program, retrofitting all public schools in Texas with solar panels and creating 84,000 jobs for laborers, operating engineers, painters, electricians and more. Through this effort, the building trades, teachers unions and Service Employees International Union are running campaigns to get local school boards to commit to bond programs for retrofitting the buildings and switching to electric school buses.
Levy said the key to the Texas Climate Jobs Project’s success was breaking through the idea that climate change is a job-killing idea, and instead highlighting how the shift to clean energy means job creation.
“Sometimes solidarity means marching to a hotel and supporting the workers who are there organizing, but sometimes what solidarity means is getting in a room with people that you share a movement with, and figuring out how we can work together,” Levy said.
March on the hotel itself
Early Saturday evening, some convention attendees exited the Hyatt Regency for a brief rally to laud a handful of recent union campaigns, especially a group of young mechanics at Jim Fisher Volvo who are trying to unionize with the Machinists union, and workers at the Hyatt itself, who joined UNITE HERE Local 8 in March 2020 but still don’t have their first union contract.
Workers at the Hyatt won union recognition one week before the pandemic shut the facility down. Now, they’re in the middle of contract negotiations with Hyatt, and they have some unresolved issues with management, hotel workers said during the rally. Management wants workers to do “lateral service,” where they are working two positions at the same time for the same pay, and the hotel is also declining to recognize seniority rights in the contract.
But the biggest fight is to bring all housekeeping positions into the union, and they say the hotel has declined to voluntarily bring those jobs into the contract.
Rally participants marched back into the hotel, chanting, for one of the convention’s most dramatic moments, briefly filling and occupying the hotel lobby until a manager could be summoned to hear a message from Oregon’s labor movement. Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor and Oregon AFSCME Executive Director Stacy Chamberlain told the manager on duty that if the hotel wants more union business, it needs to settle an acceptable contract for its workers.
In first Oregon governor’s debate, sparks fly over PERS
In 2019, the last time the Oregon AFL-CIO held its convention, few Democratic state lawmakers were invited, because most had recently voted to trim public employee retirement benefits. So it was a safe bet that when this year’s leading Democratic Party candidates for governor—former House Speaker Tina Kotek and State Treasurer Tobias Read—took the stage for a debate during the 2022 Oregon AFL-CIO convention, changes to the system known as PERS would come up. Kotek rallied Democrats to vote for the PERS cuts in 2019, and Read previously voted to cut public employee retirement benefits in 2013.
Kotek acknowledged that the cuts in 2019 “hurt some people in this room,” drawing affirmative shouts from the crowd. “I won’t forget that,” she said.
Democrats wanted to pass the Student Success Act to provide funding for schools, Kotek explained, but then-state senator Betsy Johnson (who’s now running for governor as an independent) wouldn’t vote for school funding “unless we do something on PERS,” Kotek said. Kotek said the PERS cuts she made were an alternative to more dramatic measures to reduce public employee retirement benefits, such as a fourth tier for new hires with even lower benefits.
Read didn’t mention his prior vote to cut benefits in 2013, but said PERS is 85% funded right now and is financially healthy under his tenure as state treasurer (treasurer plays a role investing the funds.)
“I am not one who wants to make political deals on the backs of public employees,” he added, eliciting applause. But Kotek chimed in with the last word: “Can I just say that I’m not the only person on this stage who has taken a vote against PERS,” she said.
Both speakers said they don’t believe further PERS cuts are coming.
- Legislator of the Year: State Rep. Karin Power
- Warrior for Workers: State Rep. Andrea Salinas
- Rising Star: State Senator Kate Lieber
- Freshman of the Year: State Rep. Dacia Grayber
- Largest Organizing Victory since the 2019 convention: Oregon AFSCME at OHSU Hillsboro
- Leading the Way in Organizing: IBEW Local 89 among Oregon Legislative Staff, the first state legislative staff union in the country
- Strategic and Outside of the Box Organizing Award Oregon AFSCME among medical interpreters
Hold the Line Awards:
- UFCW Local 555 For winning a game-changing contract following a historic one-day strike
- BCTGM Local 364 For inspiring union members nationwide as part of the summer 2021 Nabisco strike
- OFNHP, AFT Local 5017 For standing together in an incredible display of solidarity and winning for Kaiser workers
- IATSE Local 488 For standing together in powerful solidarity in the television and film industry to demand fair treatment of workers
Tom Chamberlain “Working Class Hero” Award: Jodi Guetzloe-Parker of LIUNA Local 737 for a career of leading the way in building the labor movement’s political power and embodying the spirit of solidarity
Local Worker Power Award: Marion Polk Yamhill Central Labor Chapter, for running an exemplary Labor 2021 political campaign in the Salem-Keizer school board elections
Member Mobilization All-Star Award: Russ Benton of SMART Local 16 for exceptional engagement in the Labor 2021 Program and sustained local policy work
Be it resolved …
The official business of the convention is the setting of official policy for the labor federation. Here are some of the resolutions delegages approved:
- THANK LCSA FOR ITS WORK Labor’s Community Service Agency (LCSA) has been busy during the pandemic, helping thousands of laid-off union workers navigate benefits and keep food on the table. After numerous delegates shared stories of how LCSA has helped members over the years, they voted unanimously to renew a commitment to support the organization.
- PREVENT HEALTH CARE WORKPLACE VIOLENCE AFL-CIO delegates committed the organization to helping with a workplace violence prevention initiative in conjunction with the Oregon Nurses Association, which says underreporting and a lack of support for reporting workplace violence is a growing problem in medical settings.
- HEALTH CARE FOR ALL Oregon AFL-CIO will support Legislative Referral 401, a constitutional amendment that will go before Oregon voters this November. The constitution would be amended to note that the state “must ensure affordable health care access” for residents.
- REBUILD THE INTERSTATE BRIDGE In a charge led by the building trades, the Oregon AFL-CIO will work to ensure that lawmakers approve necessary funding for the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project during the 2023 legislative session.
- SUPPORT A PROPOSED RENEWABLE DIESEL FACILITY IN CLATSKANIE The renewable diesel facility that NEXT Renewables proposes to construct is in the permitting stage. The project has agreed to use all union labor for construction and also agreed to remain neutral if workers who operate the facility want to unionize.
- HOLD AMAZON ACCOUNTABLE Amazon is building a massive new distribution facility in Woodburn, using nonunion out-of-state labor. The AFL-CIO will work with lawmakers to extend prevailing wage coverage to include tax abatements, subsidies, and other economic development assistance, and will press elected leaders across Oregon to address Amazon’s exploitative, low-road business practices.
- URGE UNIONS TO USE UNION ENTERTAINERS Oregon AFL-CIO will create a list of affiliate entertainment unions for unions to contact when they hire actors, musicians, dancers, singers, and other performers for convention functions. Unions should also strive to use union stagehands, A/V workers, lighting, sound etc. This builds on a similar resolution approved in 2005.