By COLIN STAUB
Micki Varney’s union involvement began when she saw troubling work conditions at the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.
A salmon biologist, she arrived at the agency in 2010, after two decades collecting data at salmon hatcheries for the equivalent agency in Washington. In Washington she’d been a union member but wasn’t active because there weren’t big workplace problems to solve.
At the Oregon agency, she scheduled and trained a crew of 25 port samplers who check commercial fishing boats to estimate how much salmon was coming in from the ocean. Varney noticed the samplers weren’t being provided rain gear by their supervisor.
“They’re the lowest paid employees, and they didn’t have the tools they needed to do their job, and we count on their data to manage our fisheries,” Varney says.
Varney and the workers were represented by SEIU Local 503, so she read their contract. Not only did they lack gear that their contract promised, but they also weren’t being reimbursed for mileage or compensated for meals as spelled out in the contract. Varney brought those concerns to the supervisor, but she didn’t stop there.
“That’s when I stepped in as a steward, because it just was not right,” Varney says. That’s also when employees started getting what they were entitled to.
For Varney it was the first in a string of union roles. In 2013 she became chief steward at Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. She bargained three contracts. She served on Local 503’s CAPE (Citizen Action for Political Education) legislative advocacy council. And she served on the General Council, the union’s governing body.
But being a steward is the core of her union involvement. It’s not always a pleasant role. Varney says stewards pay a price for their work opposite management. It’s illegal for employers to discriminate against stewards for their union-protected activities, but Varney says retaliation happens in subtle ways. She’s been dropped off email lists and not invited to meetings directly related to her work. That may be why she found few stewards when she started at Fish and Wildlife, which she says has a reputation as an anti-union agency where managers won’t promote workers who are active within the union.
“It’s brutal. You’re isolated. And you’re retaliated against,” Varney says.
She’s actively working to improve how stewards are treated. Varney is in her third term on SEIU Local 503’s Stewards Committee, where she serves as co-chair. The committee recommends contract language to protect stewards, and it pushed to expand an SEIU steward training program, a resolution the union’s General Council approved in 2020.
Varney says those efforts are paying off. Fish and Wildlife currently has 13 active union stewards, in a department that varies between 700 and 900 workers.
“It’s been exciting in the last couple of years to just see them take off,” she says. “It has taken this many years to get people to not be as afraid to get involved and to step up.”
Varney had previously served as a City Councilor in the small town of Dayton, Washington, and knew she wanted to run for office again. Organized labor helped prepare her to run. She was one of the first to graduate from the Oregon Labor Candidates School, in 2013.
The goal of the school is to bring labor voices into elected positions. Varney had 11 classmates in the six-month course on public speaking, fundraising, campaign planning and messaging. Elected officials visited to share tips and stories. Homework was fundraising. Students also reached out to elected officials to serve as mentors after the classes ended; Varney’s mentor was Kate Brown, who was then secretary of state.
So far Varney has used the skills she learned in several campaigns, including a 2013 run for Chemeketa Community College board (the incumbent won with 56% of the vote) and a 2018 run for Salem City Council that she lost by about 250 votes.
Salem City Council is an unpaid volunteer position. When Jim Lewis, the candidate who beat her in 2018, resigned this February, Salem City Council appointed her to fill out the remainder of his term. Now she’s running in the May primary to keep the seat for another term. Her district is Ward 8, in West Salem. Chris Cummings, who runs an IT services company, is also running.
Varney thinks being a union steward is great preparation for city council. As a steward, Varney explains contractual language to members. As a city council member she explains laws and city codes to constituents. Both roles have her advocating so that others can have a voice.
“I get a big reward, intrinsically, from seeing others succeed, and empowering others, and seeing them get engaged,” Varney told the Labor Press.