By COLIN STAUB
With Election Day just days away, Oregon Democratic candidate for governor Tina Kotek is emphasizing her support for—and from—organized labor at campaign events.
Kotek appeared with national AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler at an Oct. 20 press event at the Oregon AFL-CIO headquarters. She came out to speak to IBEW Local 48 members at their Oct. 26 general membership meeting. And she appeared alongside several union figures at an Oct. 27 rally at Portland’s Roseland Theater that featured U.S. Senator and labor stalwart Bernie Sanders.
“When people say that I’m too close to unions, I say ‘I am a pro-labor, pro-worker candidate,’” Kotek told Local 48 members. “I believe in standing up for people who are doing the job day in and day out.”
At the AFL-CIO event, Kotek pointed to some of the many workers rights bills she helped pass as House Speaker including a 2015 law requiring employers to provide paid sick time; a 2016 law that significantly raised the minimum wage over six years, with raises tied to inflation after that; and a 2019 law that set up paid family medical leave—starting next year, workers can take up to 12 weeks off to care for a newborn child or sick parent while collecting some or all of their regular wages.
Ironworkers Local 29 apprentice Courtney Newberg said prevailing wage law reform in 2021 was vital for trade workers. Prevailing wage, which workers must be paid on public works projects, used to be set by the state using a survey of employers around the state. It didn’t always reflect the current market rate for construction work. Senate Bill 493, which Kotek helped to pass, replaced that system: Now, prevailing wage for each trade is set as the union-negotiated wage in the area.
“SB 493 ensured that no matter where we go to work in the state, we’re paid fairly regardless of where it is,” Newberg said.
Kotek’s support from labor doesn’t come without questions. At Local 48, one member brought up her pivotal role as Oregon House Speaker in cutting public employee retirement contributions, and asked how workers can trust that she’ll fight for working class people after that move. And when Kotek spoke at the Roseland Theater during the Sanders rally the next day, one attendee shouted, “No more cuts to worker pensions!”
Kotek is frequently asked about those cuts when she appears at union events, and at the Local 48 hall, she gave the same response she has in the past: State senator Betsy Johnson (also now running for governor) wouldn’t vote for a 2019 bill to tax big business in order to increase school funding by $1 billion a year—unless lawmakers also made some sort of cuts to the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). Kotek felt school funding was too important to abandon, so she arranged the cuts and convinced most of her fellow Democrats to vote for them.
“That was not my choice,” she said. “I tried to do as good of a job as I could to make sure I didn’t hurt people in that system, but it did hurt, and people are seeing smaller pensions because of it.”
Kotek said she doesn’t anticipate any further PERS cuts.
As of Oct. 27, the Real Clear Politics poll average showed Republican Christine Drazan with a nearly two percentage point lead over Kotek. Unaffiliated candidate Betsy Johnson polled at a distant third at 14%.
At Kotek’s Roseland Theater rally, Oregon State Representative Travis Nelson, a nurse (and nurse union rep) told the crowd that the race could come down to hundreds—or dozens—of votes.