By MALLORY GRUBEN
Want to show union solidarity? Consider voting in school board races.
Oregon AFL-CIO this year released its first local elections toolkit to help affiliates make endorsements in the May 16 special election, which covers local races and ballot measures. The idea is to support labor-friendly candidates and policy in low level races now, to build union allies for the long run.
Historically, Oregon’s odd-year elections are considered low stakes, low interest affairs. Many voters are unaware of who serves in local elected office, and fewer people turn out for those elections, said Oregon AFL-CIO Political Organizer Sophie Peters.
But local elections affect their communities and the workers that live there. For example, a fire levy running in Bend this year would raise money to double fire department staff and keep emergency response times low.
“It’s a workers’ rights issue for the firefighters, but it’s also a workers rights issue in that everyone is being serviced by the system,” Peters said. “We also want teachers and ironworkers to get an ambulance at their house when they need an ambulance.”
Local offices also act as a political stepping stone for candidates who later seek more prominent, powerful positions in state and federal government, Peters said. Supporting office seekers early on helps build relationships for the future.
In recent years, some far-right and anti-union groups have started eying local elections as a way to build power. In response, labor organizations have pushed back to help ensure any candidates who win those seats are worker friendly.
Jim Moore, a longtime political science and government professor at Pacific University, said labor’s increasing involvement in odd-year elections is particularly interesting because it includes regional and state labor groups. It’s not unusual to see the local teachers union make a school board endorsement; it’s less common to see the Central Labor Chapters put resources toward those races.
However, the endorsements and field programs are driven by local membership, Peters said. The Central Labor Chapters and the AFL-CIO support their affiliates in that work, but it’s the local unions who write the endorsement questionnaires or run door knocking drives.
Local elections are a way for unions to flex their political might. Peters, the Oregon AFL-CIO political organizer, noted that labor is the third-largest voting bloc in the state, exceeded only by the two major political parties. And union members support labor-backed candidates almost 75% of the time, regardless of party affiliation.
“We can’t overlook these, quote unquote, smaller elections, just because they’re not as glamorous or funded,” Peters said. “It means a lot whenever we can get a union member in office and get labor rights to the forefront of the conversation.”
MORE: See a list of candidates who got labor endorsements here.