Think again

What Bill Sizemore taught us

President, Oregon AFL-CIO

Last month, when I announced that I will be leaving my position at the Oregon AFL-CIO, I heard from an old enemy.

It was Bill Sizemore, back from oblivion, quoted in every news report of my departure. Remember him?

Thanks to Sizemore, we learned a lot about how to fight and beat the anti-worker forces in Oregon. And what we learned offers lessons for the larger challenges our unions face at the national and global level as well.

Sizemore built a business in Oregon by turning ballot initiatives into political commodities. He designed them, owned them, shopped them around to his big donors with polls showing how effective they would be against us, and then bought and sold the signatures he needed to get them on the ballot. He hawked those initiatives like rifles at a shooting gallery, in which working people, our unions and our government were the targets.

But Sizemore’s attacks united our unions as nothing had before. The more threats we faced, the more we united and toughened our response. In that sense, Sizemore was the perfect “good enemy.” He became a unifying force for our union movement. Sizemore qualified a record six initiatives for the ballot in 2000, and we defeated all six.

Still, Sizemore’s defeats in 2000 didn’t slow him down. He was making money, win or lose, with his initiative business. And that’s when we decided that we needed to do something completely different.

In 2001, we launched the Voter Education Project, motivated by growing evidence that Sizemore was running a dirty business. If we were going to have to fight our way out of the shooting gallery every two years, we concluded, we would demand a fair fight.

Many union leaders deserve credit for that effort. Joann Waller and Tricia Bosak at the Oregon Education Association (OEA) not only supported the project, but launched the lawsuit that brought Sizemore to his knees. And Jeannie Berg and Patty Wentz proved that when you put smart and resourceful people on the trail of an operator like Sizemore, they’ll find a way to expose his wrongdoing.

By the end of 2002, Sizemore failed to qualify a single measure for the ballot, his organization had been convicted of racketeering, and he owed OEA and the American Federation of Teachers $2.5 million. In the same year, we qualified for the ballot an increase in Oregon’s minimum wage and a prohibition on buying and selling signatures, to force initiative sponsors to be accountable for their petitioning practices. We passed them both and elected a governor with the highest union voter turnout in the country.

In the end, Sizemore became the quotation marks around our story – the guy who was asked to comment on our success.

But this is not the end. The enemies and agendas we confront today – from U.S. corporations that continue to outsource good jobs overseas as part of their workers-be-damned business plans for the global economy and the Wal-Marts that seek competitive advantage by cutting back health insurance for their workers – are more threatening than Sizemore and his initiative business ever was. As we learned in our battles against Sizemore, we will need to do something completely different to overcome these forces.

The unions who left the AFL-CIO this summer were right to sound the alarm about the need to change course. And, when they talk about pursuing a new path for our union movement without a map to guide them, they remind me of our unions here in Oregon when all we knew was that we needed to do something bigger and bolder to take on Sizemore but weren’t yet sure what it was. You can see the benefits of that kind of thinking now as a new union-funded watchdog group, Wal-Mart Watch, has that company on the defensive in the public relations battle over how it treats its workers. Innovation will be our salvation.

But there was another lesson we learned in our successful campaign against Sizemore that is best expressed in the slogan that the breakaway unions adopted and then abandoned earlier this year: “Unite to win.”

If AFL-CIO President John Sweeney’s proposal for “Solidarity Charters” succeeds, the “Change to Win” unions (Service Employees International Union, United Food and Commercial Workers, the Carpenters and the Teamsters) will be invited back into our state federation and central labor councils at least through the 2006 election cycle. They should accept that invitation, and we should all accept the challenge to experiment with new strategies if we hope to win for working people in an increasingly hostile political environment.

In our long and eventually successful campaign against Sizemore, we both “changed to win” and “united to win.” It took both risk-taking creativity and old-fashioned solidarity to defeat Sizemore, and I’m convinced that it will take some combination of these same two principles to rejuvenate our union movement and defeat the threats to our jobs in the global economy.

For more information, check out the Oregon AFL-CIO online at