Overcoming PERS rancor, Tina Kotek snags all but one union endorsement


Former Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek talks to picketing nurses March 15 in front of Providence St. Vincent Medical Center in Portland. (Photo by Oregon Nurses Association)


The 2022 race for Oregon governor is the most interesting in recent memory. Former Democratic state senator Betsy Johnson is scooping up gobs of corporate cash in her run as an independent who won’t appear on the ballot until November. A large field of Republicans is competing to be their party’s primary pick. And two longtime elected Democrats are facing off in the Democratic primary: former Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek and Oregon state treasurer Tobias Read. 

Johnson and the Republican contenders declined to court labor support, so that left Kotek and Read to compete for union endorsements. In that contest, Tina Kotek swept the field. State Treasurer Tobias Read had union support when he ran for his current office, and when he was a state legislator, but in his race for governor, only one union, UNITE HERE, has backed him over Kotek. 

Among labor leaders, the consensus is that Read has done a decent job as treasurer. He pushed through a policy change that requires the use of responsible (i.e., union) contractors to build, guard and maintain buildings—when state funds own a majority of a real estate asset. He also led the way in the rollout of a union-backed proposal to offer retirement savings plans to Oregon workers that don’t otherwise have one through their employer.

But Kotek, as Oregon’s longest-serving House speaker unti), year after year delivered major pieces of legislation that benefited working people. Over the nine years Kotek held the speaker’s gavel, she passed a minimum wage increase that is now nearing $15 in Portland; a law requiring large employers to offer paid sick leave; the nation’s first law setting limits on rent increases; a law that requires large retailers to give workers their schedules two weeks in advance, a law establishing the union wage as the prevailing wage on state-funded construction projects; and much much more.

In an interview with the Labor Press, Read positioned himself as more moderate than Kotek, but didn’t say specifically which of her progressive positions he opposes.

Kotek also helps union members behind the scenes, whether it’s writing letters to employers when they’re in fights with union workers, or meeting with workers trying to unionize at Columbia Sportswear, or frequent appearances at union picket lines like last year’s Nabisco strike.

But Kotek has also had failings, from the union perspective, which explain why a number of large and politically active unions have withheld their support from her in the primary. And none was more memorable than the cuts to public employee retirement benefits that she pushed through in 2019. That’s likely why AFSCME and OSEA have withheld endorsement in the primary.

The state’s largest private sector union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, also withheld backing from Kotek, disappointed with the lack of legislation in support of front-line grocery workers during the pandemic.

Why Tina Kotek cut PERS — in her own words

NORTHWEST LABOR PRESS: In 2019, Senate Bill 1049 cut employer contributions to Oregon’s Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) for current public employees, and redirected that money to reduce the PERS system’s unfunded liability. It was failing by two votes, and you used your power as speaker to stop the vote, call two lawmakers into your office, and get them to change their votes. Why did you go to such extraordinary lengths to cut PERS?

TINA KOTEK: It was a tough vote for me and all my colleagues. You know, we all believe in retirement security. And I have heard from a lot of workers about what that impact has been, and I’m not going to forget that.

In terms of the floor that day, you have to remember, we had been doing months and months of conversation about this bill. I had commitments that we were going to pass that bill, and it was a very hard day for everybody.

And the reality is, we had a very difficult political choice to make: Do you solve a 30-year-old problem around funding education, and pass the Student Success Act with a new corporate tax if the only way to get there was making some changes on PERS? That was a really tough choice. And that’s what Senator Johnson said. Betsy Johnson said, ‘I will not vote for Student Success unless we make some changes.’ And I did everything I could to make sure that we could solve both problems. 

I think what we did on PERS, it did affect people planning right now for their retirement. It’s been really hard on them.

I think we avoided some really terrible things. I’m sitting in this room, and they’re like, ‘We should get to a fourth tier of PERS and make it completely 401(k).’  That is unacceptable. Or, ‘We should make the percentage of the redirect a lot higher.’  No, that’s not fair. That’s why we did so much of the refinancing of the debt as part of the overall solution, because that was a reasonable, fair way to go about doing it.

NORTHWEST LABOR PRESS: About two thirds of the dollars saved came from extending the catch-up period from 20 years to 22 years, and then a third was the remaining elements of the package including cuts to contributions. Why not just go to 23, 24 or 25 years, and eliminate the need for public employees to take it in the shorts?

TINA KOTEK: My recollection is that there was discomfort from the legislative fiscal analysts who provide the nonpartisan analysis of the bill, that we were pushing the length of time we should be doing that kind of refinancing on the debt by going out even further. And to be honest, Betsy Johnson and Republicans said, ‘No, there has to be some contribution from public employees to solve this problem.’

One of the things we did do is that it’s not a permanent change. So when the system is at 90% funded or above, the redirect ceases. Now, we’re at 85%.

I definitely saw this as more of a decade problem than a 30-year problem. We have this short-term window where we have some problems that are carryovers from the Wall Street crash in the Great Recession. This one was the most reasonable way to deal with that, but Johnson and the Republicans were like, ‘You can’t just do it all by moving the debt.’ That was really the political situation.

I think this comes down to the ability to have a supermajority vote in both chambers, and the sticking vote in the Senate was Betsy Johnson. She needed to vote yes on the corporate activities tax or it wasn’t going to happen, we weren’t going to get Student Success.

In terms of the broader business community, you have to remember at the time, too, there were several ballot measures being floated to go on the ballot. And I think some of us also felt that you’re going to get Student Success and you’re also going to avoid these other things that could potentially be a lot worse.  Those ballot measures went away. There was no challenge at the ballot on the new corporate tax to pay for schools. And we did our best to do as much as we could without taking money out of people’s retirement benefits.

LOOK US IN THE EYES: Union firefighters watched from a Capitol balcony as Oregon lawmakers voted to cut public employee compensation up to 2 percent and divert those funds to refill public pension coffers that have lagged since the 2008 financial market collapse.


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