Saturday, April 05, 2008
Over 400 members and staff of Oregon’s SEIU Local 503 gathered in Clackamas today for their union’s political conference. The crowd was multiracial and crossed age, gender, and occupational categories. Local 503 now has about 40,000 members and is nationally recognized for raising money for its political action committee. Over 150 union members volunteered to increase their political involvement at today’s conference.
Homecare workers spoke of winning paid training, workers’ comp and paid time off as political victories. Adult foster care workers—the newest group to come into Local 503—work with the most underprivileged seniors in need of care. Their bargaining unit is 3200 people strong. These workers are trying to negotiate their first union contract and win their first raise in eight years. Nursing home workers spoke of the large numbers of people in Oregon going into residential care facilities. A first union contract covering 5000 SEIU-represented childcare providers was signed in 2007. These workers continue to advocate for providers and kids. They will be leading a struggle for healthcare coverage which will be an essentially political effort. State workers spoke of continuing to make healthcare a priority in their negotiations and in their legislative efforts. One state worker who is a single mother spoke of having to choose between chicken and baloney because of increasing premiums. She emphasized taking healthcare out of bargaining and finding a political solution in her speech. Other state workers spoke of the need to expand the right to organize unions, gaining better standards of living for the next generation, building union power and expanding bargaining rights. “We’re not going to whine in ’09,” said one state worker. “We’re going to hold the line in ’09!” A Beaverton city worker called for respect at work and linked this to the political choices facing union members. An ODOT worker spoke against privatization and called for taxing corporations and raising the corporate minimum tax. Calls to eliminate the corporate kicker and raise the corporate minimum tax were heard throughout the day. All of the workers who spoke saw their issues in clear political terms.
Local 503 has played a lead role in capping pay day loan rates, has won collective bargaining for adult foster care workers, has fought for the same rates at hospitals for insured and uninsured people and has fought for paid family leave for family emergencies. Speakers were generally antiwar, anti-privatization, opposed to attacks on immigrant rights, supported universal or national healthcare, supported increased funding for social services and bargaining, supported expanding worker rights, supported taking positions in primary races which help the most progressive candidates win and said that being a Democrat should not be enough to win the union’s endorsement. These points were supported by most workers present. Even with this list of wins and struggles, however, Local 503 remains defensively positioned in a number of political races and in ballot measure fights. The “paycheck deception” ballot measure run by the far right in Oregon will kill the union’s political program if it passes and cripple or kill the union if members militantly resist.
Two years ago Democrats took back the Oregon legislature and gained a slight majority in the House. Local 503 has now targeted 6 key primary races in Oregon in an attempt to hold on to these seats and expand union power. At least two of the candidates running are union members and many of the candidates are first-timers.
John Kroger, running for Attorney General, addressed the assembly and gave as his lead points building worker rights and prosecuting employers who violate worker rights, helping the stressed child support system, supporting national health care, stopping meth and providing treatment for people with drug problems and consumer protection. Kroger supports Obama and used his speech to express antiwar sentiments. He is a former Enron prosecutor. Kroger said that George Bush “has taken this country and driven it right into a ditch.” He ended his talk by asking, “Are we ready to have a country where workers come first?”
Other candidates also addressed the conference. Ben Westlund, candidate for State Treasurer, gave a strong pro-union message which highlighted the damage done by private equity funds. Brian Clem said that he has more SEIU members in his district than any other candidate and said that labor support has given him such an edge that he is now running unopposed.
Barack Obama called in to thank the body for supporting him and to inspire the meeting. His phone call was followed by a speech by Portia Moye, the newly-elected African-American president of the childcare workers’ local. “We’ve won a voice and we’re not going to be quiet!” she said. She also spoke of her local union’s political agenda: healthcare, respect, advances which will help children and working families, funding and increasing political action. “No one is going to take this away from us!” she said. “We won our voice through politics. If lost, we won’t be able to talk to the politicians and continue to win for working families. All we have to do is set a goal and work for it!”
The union is facing a political attack from the far right. Ballot measures targeting teachers, public employee unions, trial lawyers who take civil rights cases and who sue corporations, immigrants and ESL programs, public safety and public services are being pushed by rightwing forces. Union leaders and a speaker from Our Oregon highlighted the dangers of these ballot measures and the need to fight back. The alliance needed to fight back and win, it was pointed out, will come from labor, pro-choice groups, environmental organizations, gay rights organizations and community groups.