Let me say this about that

By Gene Klare

June 1, 2001

TOM CUNNINGHAM, retired executive secretary-treasurer of Portland-headquartered Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 49, deserves a round of applause for being chosen by the Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council as the newest member of its Labor Hall of Fame.

The 70-year-old Milwaukie resident retired in 1996 as the leader of the SEIU local, which he had joined in 1969.

The NW Oregon Labor Retirees are affiliated with the Northwest Oregon Labor Council and meet monthly in the NOLC 's board room at 1125 SE Madison St., Portland.

THOMAS DAVID CUNNINGHAM was born in Janesville, Minn., on Feb. 22, 1931. He graduated from high school there in 1949 and enlisted in the United States Air Force two years later. He served in the Korean War in 195 l -52 and was honorably discharged as a staff sergeant in 1954. Four years later he graduated with a degree in education from Mankato State University not far from his hometown.

As a youngster he remembers his mother writing to Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt to ask his help in saving her family's farm in the Great Depression of the 1930s. FDR advised her to contact the nearest office of the Federal Land Bank, a New Deal agency created by the Democratic president. Mrs. Cunningham obtained a loan from the federal office, which enabled the Cunninghams to save their farm. The farm is still in the family.

A teaching opportunity at St. Mary's Home for Boys in Beaverton brought Cunningham to Oregon shortly after graduating from college. An affinity for the labor movement prompted him to walk in solidarity with the striking newspaper workers on their picket lines at the Oregonian and Oregon Journal in the bitter 1959-65 dispute.

CUNNINGHAM LEFT TEACHING to sell office machines, including dictating equipment and copiers. But in 1969 he found his true calling, going to work for Local 49 as a business agent. He was hired by Marty Blake, the union's executive secretary-treasurer and for many years an SEIU vice president. "Marty was my mentor," Cunningham told the Northwest Labor Press.

In addition to being a business agent, Cunningham became president of the Local 49 Credit Union in 1972, and was elected president of the local union in 1980. Three years later he became the union's business manager and secretary-treasurer, succeeding Blake, who retired. In his years as Local 49's leader, Cunningham held a number of posts within the SEIU. These included: Building Service Division Executive Board member, 1988-96; Hospital Division Executive Board member, l 988-92; delegate to International Federation of Labor meetings, 1994; Western Conference of SEIU Executive Board member, 1984-96; Oregon Council of Service Employees president, 1990-96.

Cunningham served on the Northwest Oregon Labor Council Executive Board and on the Advisory Board of the Labor Education and Research Center of the University of Oregon. He was president of the Portland Maritime Trades Council in 1987-88 and of the Portland Provision Trades Council from 1992-96. He was a delegate to the Columbia-Pacific Building Trades Council in the 1980s and '90s.

GOVERNOR BARBARA ROBERTS appointed Cunningham to the Oregon Insurance Pool Governing Board in 1988 and he served on it until 1996. He held trustee posts in the Local 49 Pension Trust and the Self-Insurance Health, Dental and Insurance Trust.

Looking back on his union career, Cunningham said: "When I took over Local 49 in 1983, anti-union activity was going on. To offset it, I helped initiate labor-management committees with employers and union members throughout the city. Instead of companies figuring out how to kill us, they started working together with us." He said that he was associated with other union leaders and Federal Mediator Paul Stuckenschneider in the labor-management initiative. (Employers were encouraged to go on an anti-union binge in the 1980s by the union-busting policies of Republican President Ronald Reagan, Vice President George Bush, father of the U.S. Supreme Court-appointed current president, and their congressional cohorts.)

Cunningham recalled that it took a 1988 strike against the Kaiser Permanente health care system to get the giant health maintenance organization to amend its anti-worker attitude. "Local 49 struck Kaiser and there were strikes against them all over the West," he said. "We occupied Kaiser's headquarters on North Interstate Avenue for several days and forced them back to the bargaining table."

IN THE WAKE of the strike, Cunningham said he started meeting in 1989 with SEIU locals that dealt with Kaiser in other cities and helped develop a coalition of unions that bargained with Kaiser in Oregon and southwest Washington. Eventually, this led to a rapprochement between Kaiser Permanente and the national AFL-CIO that produced a national contract last year, he noted.

In his leadership years in Local 49, Cunningham started a Justice for Janitors campaign in Portland and through it organized more building service workers into the union.

Cunningham derives satisfaction and pride from his public service work. He has served since 1996 on the board of directors of LINK, a labor-sponsored non-profit organization that builds low-income housing with union labor in the Portland metro area and built an apartment building in Pendleton. He does volunteer work through his church, St. John's Catholic Church in Milwaukie, and helps out at the St. Vincent dePaul charity. Also, he's involved in the Portland Conference Concerns Committee which provides payments for rents and utilities for people down on their luck.

HE'S ACTIVE in the Hibernians, a society for people of Irish heritage.

Cunningham and his wife, the former Geri McIntosh of Portland, have been married since 1968. The new member of the Labor Hall of Fame enjoys playing golf with friends from the labor movement and hits the links about three days a week, usually playing at the Oregon City course.


HAROLD KING, secretary-treasurer of the Portland-based Northwest Oregon Labor Retirees Council, reported in his organization's newsletter that the Alliance for Retired Americans believes that a Medicare pharmaceutical benefit program should incorporate these principles:

* UNIVERSAL COVERAGE for all who qualify for Medicare benefits.

* The benefit must be comprehensive and include the most current and effective treatments and quality controls.

* Enrollment in the RX benefit should be voluntary so that those who have superior benefits can remain in their employer's plan while assuring enrollment later for persons facing erosion or loss of current drug benefits.

* THE BENEFIT must have affordable premiums and co-pays and should protect all beneficiaries from high out-of-pocket expenses.

* The benefit must not be means-tested, however, low-income persons should have all costs covered.

* Dollar coverage of the benefit should be high enough to protect the out-of-pocket costs of average-to-higher pharmaceutical users and contain a reasonable cap on costs for those with catastrophic bills.

* EMPLOYERS SHOULD BE required and/or provided with incentives to maintain and expand the level of coverage of current, employer-provided prescription drug benefits.

* Pharmaceutical prices for all consumers must be brought under some system of control, including, for example, enforcement of patient limits; negotiations on fair prices by the federal government where there is significant public investment in drug development; and, provisions to achieve price discounts for Medicare beneficiaries based on the Federal Supply Schedule and comparable to prices charged to larger health maintenance organizations and hospital chains. Without action on the rising price of pharmaceuticals, the cost of a Medicare benefit will not be affordable, and millions of Americans of all ages will be denied their right to first-class health services.


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