When collective begging turned to collective bargaining


Today, public employee unions are the largest unions in Oregon and a major source of worker power in the workplace and the legislature. But 50 years ago, Oregon public employee unions lacked a legal right to bargain or enforce labor agreements. State, county, and municipal employees, teachers, police, firefighters, and others practiced what would be better described as “collective begging” than collective bargaining.

That all changed with the passage of the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act (PECBA) in July 1973.

In the fall of 1972 Democrats took control of both houses of the state legislature. Even with a Republican governor, Tom McCall, bipartisan efforts produced a broad range of progressive legislation. There wasn’t the vitriolic partisanship that we see in Salem today.

It was also a time of increasing militance among public employees, who were frustrated with their inability to organize, negotiate, and enforce contracts. Many organizations that once saw themselves as “professional associations,” such as the Oregon Education Association, moved closer to the trade union movement and acted more like unions. Some public employers voluntarily signed contracts, but others refused to negotiate at all. This led to illegal strikes born of the frustration of the rank and file. In 1972 and 1973, as legislators considered passing a collective bargaining law, a series of illegal strikes took place.

Oregon was not the first state to grant bargaining rights to public employees—Wisconsin did so in 1959, and New York in 1967. But Oregon’s PECBA was more comprehensive than most. For one thing, it covered all public employees, not just a few that politicians were fearful of offending, like police and firefighters. Secondly, it created a broad range of issues the employer must negotiate over—the so-called “scope of bargaining.” It created a funded agency—the Employment Relations Board (ERB)—to interpret and enforce the law, and gave it the power to sanction employers or unions that violated the law. Finally, the law set up an impasse resolution system that included a broad right to strike (except for police, firefighters, guards, and emergency phone workers, who had access to binding arbitration instead). Not even New York, with its powerful labor movement, gave public employees the right to strike.

In short, PECBA went well beyond the vague requirement that public employers “meet and confer” with unions, which the Oregon legislature had passed in 1959 and 1969. It was now a true mandate for collective bargaining. Organizing and bargaining exploded, and OEA, Oregon Public Employees Union (which later became SEIU Local 503), AFSCME, the Oregon School Employees Association, and the Oregon Federation of Teachers all became vibrant unions. Independent public employee unions also flourished.

Governor McCall’s task force to draft the bargaining law included former Medford representative Jim Redden (later a federal judge), UO economics professor Jim Kleinsorge, former federal mediator LeRoy Smith, and Oregon Civil Service Commission director Mel Cleveland — all prominent Oregon public figures with a deep understanding of collective bargaining. When the final legislation was drafted, it was moved through committee and legislature by a staff labor lawyer, Ted Kulongoski, who would go on to be a two-term governor.

Whether to grant public employees the right to strike was contentious among lawmakers. But key legislators felt a legal right to strike was better than unpredictable illegal strikes. Public employee strikes were occurring across the country, including four job actions in Oregon: a threatened mass resignation by Oregon Nurses Association members at the Oregon Medical School’s Teaching Hospital (now OHSU), a strike by Laborers Local 483 sewage treatment workers in Washington County, a strike by teachers in the Hillsboro School District, and an illegal 13-day walkout by Klamath Falls Police in July 1973, just before PECBA’s passage.

Also contentious was the question of which workers would be granted bargaining rights and which would be classified as supervisors. Some laws, like New York’s, allowed middle level managers to organize. Others excluded many workers with supervisory responsibilities.

And there was considerable difference of opinion about the scope of bargaining—how many things management could exclude by claiming they were “inherent management rights.”

In the final negotiations, bill drafters settled on a broad scope of bargaining, including all matters of “working conditions,” but a narrower eligibility of who was eligible for bargaining rights and who was excluded as a supervisor.

Labor was mostly unified, but there were also differences that had to be negotiated between the two teacher unions, over the principle of “exclusive representation,” and the firefighters, who favored inclusion of some junior officers in the union. The Oregon School Boards Association was the bill’s most vehement opponent.

PECBA was enacted on July 21, 1973. Years later, Ted Kulongoski opined that the key to agreement was convincing State Senator George Wingard, a Eugene Republican, that the bill would not include supervisors in bargaining units.

PECBA’s passage raises an important question about the nature of union growth. Does union militance force the enactment of laws that protect workers’ rights? Or does legal protection embolden workers to become more assertive about negotiating to pursue their interests? PECBA seems to illustrate both. Its passage resulted in a huge amount of union organizing—within two months of its passage over 200 representation election petitions were filed. But it also seems unimaginable the law would have passed without the pressure brought to bear by those workers in Washington County, Hillsboro, the Oregon Medical School, and Klamath Falls. Willing to risk their livelihood by engaging in illegal strikes, they sent a clear message to the legislators in Salem that their voices would be heard.

This is Part I of II. Part II will describe the growth of public employee unionism after passage of PECBA, and the changes made to the law since 1973.



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