Oregon AFL-CIO cuts staff, budget

The Oregon AFL-CIO has slashed its budget and eliminated one-third of its paid staff to cope with the defection of several unions to a rival labor coalition.

The reorganization comes as the breakaway unions, including the largest state workers union in Oregon, meet today in St. Louis, Mo., for the founding convention of their Change to Win Coalition.

“Any organization that faces a loss in revenue as large as 40 percent has to do some radical restructuring, and we’ve done that,” said Oregon AFL-CIO President Tim Nesbitt.

Oregon AFL-CIO money, activists and endorsements played a major role in electing Gov. Ted Kulongoski in 2002, and the federation is an influential part of the Oregon Democratic Party’s base. A budding split in the federation could reduce union clout at a time when labor’s power already was waning nationally.

The state federation’s union-organizing coordinator and public-relations and research director will leave their posts this week, Nesbitt said. Secretary-Treasurer Brad Witt, the federation’s No. 2 official, has taken a new job, and his post likely will become unpaid. Witt also might have to vacate his elected post because his new employer, United Food and Commercial Workers, is part of the rival coalition.

The national labor-movement split also forced state AFL-CIO leaders to remove several officers who represent Change to Win unions. Leslie Frane, the executive director of Oregon’s largest state workers union, Local 503 of Service Employees International Union, was removed as vice president. Frane’s predecessor, Alice Dale, who helped build Local 503 into a potent force in state government and politics, also lost her position on the AFL-CIO’s executive board.

Oregon AFL-CIO membership has grown from 105,000 to 145,000 since Nesbitt was elected in 1999. However, the departure of SEIU and other unions reduces membership to about 90,000. That will trim the $1.1 million operating budget accordingly.

Although the national split is breeding mistrust among some labor leaders, there are signs of thawing relations between the two camps.

Negotiations have resumed between national AFL-CIO and Change to Win leaders that would allow the defectors to remain dues-paying members of state and local labor federations and councils. There’s a tentative deadline to resolve that issue by Oct. 15, Nesbitt said.

Until then, the Oregon AFL-CIO is holding open the vacated leadership positions once held by Change to Win members.

“It’s still really in flux,” said Ken Allen, the executive director of Council 75 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, the second-largest state workers union in Oregon.

National leaders of SEIU and AFSCME recently signed a two-year pledge not to raid members in the other union. There had been fear that the two unions would spend their time competing for the same workers now that they are not in the same labor federation and are freed from anti-raiding restrictions.

“Because the no-raid agreement got worked out, I think things can move forward as far as the parties working together,” Allen said.

Change to Win members always intended to organize new members rather than lure away members from other unions, Frane said from St. Louis, where she is attending pre-convention activities. But the no-raiding deal should enable the unions on both sides of the divide to work together better, she said.

One example is a new Oregon coalition to combat a proposed 2006 ballot measure to cap state spending, sponsored by national conservative group FreedomWorks. A similar initiative in Colorado has crimped state spending. Public-employee unions vow to play a major role in Oregon to defeat the measure.

“If you continue to work cooperatively in coalitions,” Frane said, “then the formality of who has the titles are not important.”

In case the defectors do not rejoin the state labor federation, Oregon leaders discussed a possible dues increase at Friday’s general board meeting. That would raise monthly dues for each member from 61 cents to 81 cents, said Bob Shiprack, the executive secretary of the State Building and Construction Trades Council.

That proposal, which must be approved at the federation’s upcoming state convention, could replace some of the lost money and enable Nesbitt to hire some staff back.

The dispute is largely among national labor leaders inside the Washington, D.C., beltway, Shiprack said.

“There’s not a lot of angst out here,” he said. “It’s slowly getting worked out, I believe.”