Despite labor rift, Oregon unions still seen as having clout

SALEM — As Oregon’s leading advocate of smaller government and lower taxes, Russ Walker is preparing to fight a political war on two fronts in the 2006 elections.

Walker, executive director of the Oregon chapter of FreedomWorks, says his group is laying the groundwork for a ballot measure to restrict the ability of unions to tap their members’ paychecks for political contributions.

And as the newly elected vice chairman of the Oregon Republican Party, Walker will make it a top priority to help the GOP finally recapture the governor’s office after five straight losses to the Democrats.

In both fights, Walker has no doubt that his most formidable opposition will come from Oregon’s labor unions — despite a well-publicized rift in which two of the country’s largest unions bolted from the AFL-CIO to form their own labor coalition.

“I wouldn’t erect any tombstones to the union movement in Oregon,” Walker says. “There might be a leadership struggle going on there, but when it comes to the real work of politics, nothing is going to change.”

Oregon’s unions have been a strong political force for years, helping to elect Democrats to the state’s top political offices while working to win passage of ballot measures such as a minimum wage increase in the 2002 election.

Observers and top union officials said that despite this past week’s upheaval at the AFL-CIO convention in Chicago, Oregon’s unions would continue to work together as a unified political front in the coming election cycle.

Political analyst Jim Moore said the unions banded together more than a decade ago, mainly to fend off various anti-union and tax cut measures promoted by Bill Sizemore, who was Oregon’s leading anti-tax advocate until he was sidelined by union-filed lawsuits.

“One of the legacies of Bill Sizemore’s anti-union measures is that the unions now will pull together against their common political foes,” said Moore, who teaches political science at Pacific University in Forest Grove.

In fact, top union officials said they likely would band together next year to fight the measure now being promoted by Walker’s group that would restrict the ability of unions to tap their members’ paychecks for political contributions.

Similar to measures sponsored by Sizemore in past years, Walker’s plan would prohibit paycheck deductions for political purposes without the annual written authorization of each union member.

Union officials say Walker is trying to cripple organized labor by curbing unions’ ability to collect money from their members.

“It’s a way of silencing workers’ voices in the political process,” said Leslie Frane, executive director of the main Oregon chapter of the Service Employees International Union, one of the unions that decided to bolt the AFL-CIO this week.

Despite that high-profile divorce, however, Frane said SEIU would continue to work with the AFL-CIO in Oregon to boost candidates and oppose anti-union ballot measures in next year’s election.

“The relationships are still there, and our common interests are still aligned,” she said in an interview.

A similar view comes from Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, who said unions have scored many political successes in recent years by coordinating their election year efforts.

Unions helped deliver Oregon to Democrat John Kerry in last year’s presidential election, he said, and they were instrumental in helping Democrat Ted Kulongoski win the 2002 governor’s race over Republican Kevin Mannix.

“We’ve learned that we can accomplish a lot with a unified effort,” Nesbitt said. “I would expect that AFL-CIO unions and non-AFL-CIO unions will work togher in a common campaign structure in 2006.”

Lisa Grove, a Democratic pollster and consultant who is working for Kulongoski’s re-election campaign, predicts the unions will pull together and make a major effort to defeat the Republican gubernatorial candidate next year. The GOP race is expected to feature a rematch between Mannix and Ron Saxton.

Grove said unions are especially ready to take on Saxton because of recent comments he made in a magazine interview in which he suggested firing public employees and then rehiring them with different benefits as a way to lower the cost of the public employee pension system.

“Saxton has made incendiary comments that don’t set well with union households,” she said.