By DON McINTOSH
Oregon’s labor movement is back in the building. The Oregon Legislature’s 2023 “long session” began Jan. 17 and must conclude by June 25. It’s the first in-person session since 2020, and both chambers are now led by lawmakers with very close ties to labor. Newly installed Senate President Rob Wagner (D-Lake Oswego) spent 10 years working for American Federation of Teachers Oregon. And House Speaker Dan Rayfield (D-Corvallis) distinguished himself as a labor ally from the moment he arrived in 2015. After hearing about the plight of locked out Albany steelworkers, he won Rookie of the Year from the Oregon AFL-CIO for his work to pass extended unemployment for workers who are locked out by their employer in a labor dispute. Now Rayfield and Wagner will have some say in which bills advance and which ones stall. And there are a lot of bills. Union leaders and labor lobbyists will be pushing more than 50 separate bills, ranging from proper funding for labor law enforcement to union rights for cannabis workers.
In past sessions, unions mobilized hundreds of building trades workers or public employees to get their message across in well-organized lobby days. But the effort to reach lawmakers may be a little harder this year, however, because much of the Oregon Capitol building is undergoing remodeling and is off limits to anyone but construction workers. That may limit labor’s ability to leverage its strength in numbers.
Here are some of the top proposals unions will be promoting:
Want workers rights enforced? Fund BOLI properly. It’s a scandal: Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries is responsible for enforcing wage and hour, civil rights, and prevailing wage laws, but for decades lawmakers let its budget dwindle relative to inflation. By 2019, it had half the staff it had two decades before. In 2021, legislators gave it the biggest funding increase in decades, but newly installed labor commissioner Christina Stephenson will make the case that the agency is still woefully understaffed.
Stop Oregon OSHA from coddling unsafe employers (SB 592). Oregon OSHA long ago convinced itself that penalties are an outdated response to employers who ignore worker safety, so that today Oregon OSHA fines are the lowest in the nation. SB 592—sponsored by State Senator Kathleen Taylor and a top priority for the Oregon AFL-CIO —would increase penalties dramatically for serious and willful violations and those that lead to workplace fatalities, and adjust them annually for inflation. It would also require OSHA to conduct a comprehensive inspection after an occupational death or three or more willful or repeated violations in a year.
Reform Workers Comp. A coalition of unions wants lawmakers to require self-insured employers to use the non-profit public workers comp insurer SAIF as their claims administrator. That’s because companies that self-fund their own workers comp insurance have too strong an incentive to deny claims. During the pandemic, self-funded insurers were denying claims up to twice as often as SAIF.
Safe staffing in hospitals (HB 2697). To address a severe and longterm nurse shortage, a coalition of nurse and hospital unions is going all out this year to push a bill to set minimum safe staffing levels for nurses and other hospital workers.
Build Oregon, and with high-road contractors. Oregon Building Trades Council, the umbrella group for construction unions, will push for further public investments in infrastructure and capital projects, and try to get lawmakers to require that publicly subsidized construction projects mandate apprentice training and full family health coverage.
Transit worker right to strike (SB 187). At ATU Local 757’s request, a bill sponsored by Chris Gorsek would restore the right to strike for transit workers. Under Oregon’s Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, some public employees like poice and fire are barred from striking; instead, when they can’t agree on a contract they enter binding arbitration. Local 757 thought arbitration might work out better, and got transit workers added to the non-strikeable list in 2007, but that resulted in concessionary contracts imposed on them in arbitration.
End mandatory overtime in 24-7 locked down facilities (SB 631). A crisis of excessive overtime has become a vicious circle at correctional facilities, the Oregon State Hospital, and the Stabilization and Crisis Unit, leading workers to quit, which only makes the problem worse. Under SB 631, another Gorsek bill and a priority for Oregon AFSCME, beyond one mandatory overtime shift per month workers in those facilities would not face discipline for refusing further overtime.
21st century union cards (HB 2573). HB 2573 would enable public employees to unionize by signing union cards online instead of just on paper.
Union rights for cannabis workers (HB 3183). This bill, which UFCW Local 555 calls its top priority, would require licensed cannabis entities to enter in labor peace agreements in which they pledge not to disrupt union campaigns, agree to give union organizers access to employees, in exchange for union commitments not to strike, boycott, or picket. So far California, New York, and New Jersey have passed laws along similar lines.
Organized labor has a simple ask for the Washington Legislature, which began its 2023 session on Jan. 9: Prioritize job creation, safety on the job, and dignity in employment. Representatives of Washington State Labor Council (WSLC), the Washington Building Trades Council, and affiliated unions will be making the case to lawmakers in Olympia.
The right to refuse to attend captive audience anti-union meetings (SB 5417). In up to 90% of union organizing campaigns, workers are compelled by the boss to attend workplace antiunion meetings. SB 5417, sponsored by Sen. Karen Keiser (D-Des Moines), would bar employers from disciplining workers who decline to attend these meetings.
Housing plus transportation (SB 5466). SB 5466 would set development targets within 1,320 yards of light rail and bus rapid transit stations and give local jurisdictions tools to meet these targets. The hope is to create hundreds of thousands of new housing units close to frequent transit service, helping families and workers commute to work and services efficiently.
Prevailing wage that keeps up (HB 1099). HB 1099 would ensure that workers on public construction projects receive the state-determined prevailing wage that’s in effect when the work is performed instead of when the contracts were awarded. Right now workers sometimes see their pay frozen and eroded by inflation on lengthy projects. The bill also eliminates the ability of any contractor to take advantage of outdated wage rates to gain an unfair competitive advantage.
Climate upgrades to schools. The opportunity to reduce energy consumption by modernizing our schools is enormous. WSLC is pushing for energy conservation and generation advancements, HVAC and heating upgrades, water improvements, and other investments to lower related carbon emissions, improve student and staff health, and create thousands of quality construction jobs.
Make it easier to build. WSLC is asking lawmakers to streamline permitting, and remove parking mandates, to lower homes’ costs.
End exclusionary zoning (HB 1110). HB 1110, filed by Rep. Jessica Bateman (D-Olympia), would bar zoning laws that prohibit multiunit dwellings. Such laws prevent construction of denser, more affordable housing. HB 1110 would allow construction of duplexes, cottage clusters and townhomes that can fill the gap between low-income and high-income housing options.
Hold Workers’ Comp TPAs accountable. Employers who self-insure workers’ compensation often utilize third-party administrators to aggressively manage claims, reduce injured workers’ benefits, and drag out litigation that results in settlements for pennies on the dollar. WSLC wants legislators to adopt strict standards for TPA behavior, and increase penalties for when TPAs’ actions result in unlawful delays in benefits and abuse of injured workers.
The right to see your personnel file. WSLC wants the Legislature to adopt a law to enforce workers right to know what information their employers hold in personnel files.
Expand apprenticeship utilization standards. For state and local government construction projects, building trades unions want to see subcontractors required to provide apprentice opportunities, not just contractors.
Increase part-time faculty pay. Part-time state college faculty make much less per class than their full-time colleagues. WSLC wants the 2023 budget to make progress toward closing that wage gap.
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