PORTLAND — The Oregon AFL-CIO picked a soft-spoken diplomat Tuesday to shepherd the divided labor movement through troubled times.
Tom Chamberlain, a career firefighter and labor adviser to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, was named to succeed Tim Nesbitt, who resigned midterm as the federation’s president after a national labor rift lopped 40 percent of his membership and funding.
Nesbitt, who built the state AFL-CIO into a potent state political force, recruited Chamberlain to replace him a few weeks ago. With little time for other candidates to emerge, federation leaders at the biennial state AFL-CIO convention heeded the advice of their popular president.
Chamberlain, the lone candidate, will serve the remaining two years of Nesbitt’s term.
“Tim’s a tactician. He’s a deep thinker; that’s his fortÃ©,” Chamberlain said outside the convention hall. “My fortÃ© is getting people to work together toward a common goal.”
Two years ago, Chamberlain lost a re-election bid as the president of the Portland Firefighters Association. Now he’s assuming the top job in Oregon’s labor movement.
“He’s a unifying force,” said Martin Taylor of the Oregon Nurses Association. “Not everybody in the labor movement gets along all the time, and everybody feels good about Tom Chamberlain.”
Chamberlain grew up in a working-class neighborhood of North Portland, home to many longshoremen. He joined the Air Force right out of high school, then returned home, set on becoming a police officer like other family members.
“A cop in the neighborhood came by and told me I was nuts, and I ought to take the firefighters’ test,” he said.
He kept the firefighting job for 27 years. For the past two decades, he has been a leader in the city and statewide firefighters’ unions.
“He’s real modest. He’s not the typical run-up-and-shake-your-hand-type guy,” said Richard Beetle, the business manager of a Laborers Union local. The two collaborated on collective bargaining with the city of Portland.
“He’s very, very diplomatic. Once you get to know him, he builds your confidence,” Beetle said.
Chamberlain stepped up his political involvement by taking a public role against Measure 8, the 1994 initiative by Bill Sizemore aimed at shrinking public-employee pensions.
Then-firefighters leader Randy Leonard pushed his shy sidekick, Chamberlain, to take a prominent, public role in that campaign. Leonard served in the Legislature and now is a Portland city commissioner.
When Chamberlain lost his union post in 2003, Nesbitt hired him as an organizing coordinator for the Oregon AFL-CIO.
Later, Margaret Hallock resigned as Kulongoski’s labor adviser after working on gut-wrenching state pension reforms of 2003, and after the governor imposed a two-year wage freeze on state workers. Nesbitt urged the governor to patch his frayed relations with labor by hiring Chamberlain.
Since then, Kulongoski has signed 2005-07 labor contracts that granted a sizable pay increase to state workers and maintained health-insurance benefits. He also expanded benefits for home-care workers and signed an executive order enabling unionization of day-care providers.
“Ted and I worked together to come up with, the last 21 months, the most pro-worker agenda I think of any governor in this country,” Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain’s first order of business is seeking the return to the federation of unions defecting via the Change to Win Federation, led by the largest state workers union, Service Employees International Union Local 503. A tentative national accord could pave the way for the Change to Win unions to re-affiliate with state and local labor federations.
“I think Tom’s strength is that coalition-building, which requires a lot of patience,” said James Hester, who represents city of Portland workers in the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.
Chamberlain also hopes to woo the Teamsters and Carpenters unions to rejoin the state federation.
There will be no backing down from the AFL-CIO’s central role in initiative campaigns, Chamberlain told convention delegates. He will lead the fight against initiatives by the national conservative group FreedomWorks that would cap state spending and restrict labor’s ability to collect political dues.
“You’ll also see us on the offense with health care and the issues that affect working Oregon,” he said.
Mark Wiener, a Democratic political consultant, said Chamberlain demonstrates “very little ego” in his work. In his new post, the new AFL-CIO chief will need to learn how to be more of an “out-front public leader,” Wiener said.