By COLIN STAUB
Oregon’s labor commissioner says her strong union background and record of worker advocacy make her the candidate to succeed Congressman Peter DeFazio, who is not seeking reelection after three decades representing Oregon’s Fourth Congressional District.
Unions run in the family for Val Hoyle, who’s been in charge of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (BOLI) the last three years. Her grandfather was a member of the Laborers union in New York, where he worked in bridge construction. Her father was a firefighter, and became president of his union. Hoyle herself was a member of what is now UNITE HERE, the hospitality and restaurant workers union. And her son is a member of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), and served as a picket captain at the recent Kroger strike. All that’s to say, she has a history with unions, and she has seen firsthand the benefits they bring to the working class.
“The bottom line is, we were able to have benefits. I was able to be the first person in my family to go to college,” Hoyle said.
Now, after serving in the state legislature from 2009 to 2017, and at BOLI since 2019, Hoyle says she feels she can make a difference for workers by going to Washington, D.C.
“We have a lot of representatives, Democrats and Republicans, who won’t stand up for working people,” Hoyle said. “Even the fact that we can’t pass the PRO [Protecting the Right to Organize] Act to me is inconceivable.”
Big union shoes to fill
DeFazio has been a vocal advocate for workers and unions since he first went to Congress in 1987. His district includes Eugene, Corvallis and much of the southwest coast.
The AFL-CIO legislative scorecard gives DeFazio a 100% score in voting for workers’ interests in 2020 and a 94% record for his entire career. The announcement of his retirement spurred a flurry of labor organizations to thank him publicly for his advocacy over the years.
Hoyle describes DeFazio as an “unapologetic fighter for working people” who is not afraid to say what needs to be said, even if it makes people uncomfortable.
“I think with Peter, no one ever questioned where his values are,” Hoyle said. “There was never a, ‘Is DeFazio going to vote for the PRO Act or not?’ Of course he was.”
She says she shares that trait. She also shares a similar record of legislative approval from labor. The Oregon AFL-CIO named Hoyle “Legislator of the Year” in 2011, and later supported her campaign for labor commissioner.
DeFazio himself endorsed Hoyle for his seat in January. She is also endorsed by Sen. Jeff Merkley, who praised her “proven track record of fighting for working families and delivering results,” noting her work to increase Oregon’s minimum wage and provide paid sick leave.
Priorities for workers
Hoyle said income inequality has grown in the Fourth Congressional District just like it has the rest of the United States over the past 40 years. Wages have stagnated as profits have increased, and earning power hasn’t kept up with inflation.
“What we see here in the Fourth Congressional District is people that used to have really good jobs and hold those jobs for their entire lives, so there was a contract between the employer and the employee,” Hoyle said. “That doesn’t exist anymore.”
A lot has contributed to that trend, including efforts to undercut the ability for workers to organize, Hoyle said.
She also takes aim at free trade, and she has committed to opposing free trade agreements in the same way DeFazio has. A former international sales manager for bicycle company Burley Design, Hoyle served on the Export Council of Oregon, where she says she was an “unabashed supporter of ‘fair trade,’” which is marked by protections for workers and for the environment.
“The bottom line is, we’ve subsidized companies to take their jobs offshore, and then corporate America and Wall Street have focused on giving an incentive for short term gain as opposed to investing in long term gain and in workers and in our local communities,” Hoyle said.
If elected, she wants to push for making child care more affordable while ensuring child care workers are paid a living wage. Hoyle supports the Build Back Better Act, which caps child care costs at 7% of income for many families and provides funding that aims to increase care provider pay.
She wants to expand apprenticeships, bringing the concept into fields beyond construction. She sees the model as a viable option for bringing people into jobs that require more than a high school degree but don’t require college.
“It works for filling workforce needs for these high-wage jobs that are available, that don’t quite have the pipeline of people to go into them,” Hoyle said.
Checking in on BOLI
Hoyle has led the state’s labor office since January 2019. When she came into the job, she learned BOLI was a third the size it was 40 years ago. Hoyle says she focused on getting more investment from the Legislature and secured a 25% increase in the budget. Doing so allowed the agency to add more staff members and a whole new division to investigate housing discrimination.
She also brought a goal to make BOLI’s resources more accessible, and less bureaucratic. To that end, BOLI revised its website to be written at an eighth-grade level as opposed to a law-school level, making it more translatable in the process. The agency redesigned its posters so they’re recognizable from a distance. It removed a requirement that wage claim forms need a wet signature, allowing workers to file online.
Hoyle said the agency still needs more investigators, and it needs to continue bringing more public awareness of its purpose, both to workers and lawmakers.
“No one knows what BOLI does, very few people,” Hoyle said. “Legislators weren’t aware of the budget cuts and the budget situation we were in.”
District includes red and blue counties
Hoyle says she shares another similarity with DeFazio: Being able to draw support from voters regardless of party.
“There are Republicans that say, ‘I vote for two Democrats: You and Peter DeFazio,’” Hoyle said. She chalks that up to focusing on work that benefits constituents, and keeping in touch with people on the ground.
Multi-party appeal could be an important factor in the race for District 4. In endorsing Hoyle, DeFazio described the seat as “heavily targeted by Republicans for takeover.”
So far, besides Hoyle, candidates for the district primary include Democrats Sami Al-Abdrabbuh, Doyle Canning, Andrew Kalloch, Steve Laible, John Selker, G. Tommy Smith and Joshua Welch. Republican Alek Skarlatos has raised the most of any candidate in the field at nearly $1.2 million.
Skarlatos, who previously ran against DeFazio, formerly worked for the Freedom Foundation, an anti-union group that aims to get public employees to stop paying dues.
Beyond Democrat-favoring population centers in Eugene and Corvallis, the district includes roughly 250 miles of the coast, incorporating portions of Republican-controlled Oregon House District 1. Parts of Republican-held districts in Douglas and Lane counties are in the congressional boundaries. This is also the first election since redistricting was finalized late last year, bringing Lincoln County into the boundaries.
All that adds up to uncertainty for the district’s political leanings.
“I think there’s a misperception that this district is a solid blue district,” Hoyle said.