Saturday, May 27, 2017

The Oregon AFL-CIO Lobby Day and the need for unity, discipline and struggle

I took part in the Oregon AFL-CIO lobby day last week. The experience of lobbying at the State Capitol for a few measures which benefit workers and, by extension, most Oregonians was a good one and educational. It has helped me think through a few points which are quickly moving to the center of our political universe.

The lobby day came right after our strike at AT&T Mobility, and it was good to feel the subtle push that the strike gave labor. And while it was the rank-and-file of our Communications Workers of America union which moved the strike so successfully, it helped to have Senator Merkley and other politicians with us. If we got a hearing last Thursday, it was due in part to those great CWA picket lines.

 We were at the state Capitol to lobby for a transportation bill which will directly benefit Portland if the bill passes. The difficult parts of this are that the bill only indirectly helps other regions and requires that workers foot much of the cost. On this latter point the Oregon AFL-CIO has taken a strong position on workers not picking up the greater part of the tab. We were also there to lobby for the Fair Work Week bills (HB 2193A and SB 828A), for making corporations pay a greater share of taxes and contributing more to services, and for the Stable Homes (HB 2004) legislation, We were also there to lobby against cuts to the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). The Stable Homes legislation emerged as especially important during the day. The ghosts in the room are the recurring state budget shortfall, the attempts by some ranking Democrats and Republicans to cut deals which effectively disenfranchise working-class people and people of color, the resistance to these deals by some elected peoples' champions and the state of unity between labor, people of color and other progressive forces.

A few points provide needed context for me here:

* The Oregon AFL-CIO's political agenda is broader than it has been in the past, and more progressive, but it still does not speak fully to women and people of color. Because of this there were few women and people of color with us and leading us at the lobby day.

* The labor agenda did not include the Cover All Kids and ending racial profiling legislation which is needed. "Mainstream" labor continues to forget about getting farmworkers covered under the labor laws which cover everyuone else.

* Some of the state revenue proposals which seem to be getting traction negatively affect union and workers' rights and come from the far-right anti-government groups.

* Liberal and progressive decision-makers are not talking about taxing the rich, but are instead looking for making tax policy less regressive. Oregon has the lowest corporate taxes in the U.S. Meanwhile, people who are represented by SEIU Local 503 make perhaps 98% of market wages and benefits. Workers pay three times for the wealthy not doing the right thing: we pay by having to pay the bill for services, we lose when those services are cut, and we pay if we work for state or local governments in low wages and benefits which are always stable. All of us are still paying for the 2008 Wall Street crash. The social conversation which began in labor around the failed Measure 97 is still alive and still helpful. The Oregon AFL-CIO has done a great job in keeping this conversation alive. A negative (the loss on 97) can become a positive (progress on a tax-the-rich program).

* PERS is one part of a complicated puzzle; downward adjustments or cuts mean that other pieces in the puzzle have to move as well. PERS problems do not stand by themselves. Whatever the behind-the-scenes negotiations which are taking place, the Oregon AFL-CIO has held on to principles by keeping this on its agenda.

* The Fair Work Week legislation potentially covers tens of thousands of people working in retail, but it doesn't affect the local coffeeshop. Enforcement of our progressive sick leave law is lacking. When labor looks to winning private right of action on sick leave law violations---and possibly on fair work week violations in the future---we are surrendering the collective action which built our movement and we're handing our opposition a win.

* Four in 10 Oregon households are now renters, with vacancy rates in many urban districts at one or two percent. Something like 1.5 million people here are therefore vulnerable when it comes to housing. "Rent stabilization" is replacing rent control as a public demand, and no-cause evictions have center stage in the debate now. The opportunity to build pressure around linking tenant's rights to higher wages and healthcare certainly exists and is necessary, but it is not at the front of liberal and progressive agendas (including labor's).  

* The problems with Portland's Terminal 6 have not been part of the legislative discussions on transit---and they need to be. The focus is more on who pays for infrastructure and on Portland's problems. Our instinctive push is for extending mass transit so that Eugene, Corvallis, Salem and other towns can be connected to Portland once more. The decision-makers regard this as utopian if they think about it at all.

* Legislators Brian Clem, Brad Witt and Tim Knopp move further to the back of the room every day. Senate President Peter Courtney's famous drama and yelling and bipartisanship continues to substitute for principles, and it's clear that he is challenged and baffled by the few progressive women and people of color who now hold legislative positions.

We have said in the past that maximum unity is needed among the peoples' forces for real change, and especially so when the state budget is in such bad shape. Without unity behind a broad set of inclusive political demands and leadership which looks like Oregon's working-class we run the risk of fighting one another for crumbs as the legislature winds down. For my part, I want to spend the remaining weeks of the session focused on housing, Cover All Kids legislation and the June 6 rally at the Capitol against cuts to services. But what's missing is having one movement behind one agenda and radical leadership pushing for all peoples' demands. Hopping from rally to rally doesn't correct that loss.

That movement and leadership exists on the ground now, but if it is placated or ignored or misused in some way it will suffer. More to the point, an inside/outside strategy of combining strikes and demonstrations with political demands is needed, and this puts some stress on us to be disciplined at demos and push for unity. We have to pull or push the political center in our direction. If you're showing up at liberal or progressive events in a mask and bragging that you're the real left, you're not helping. If you're giving Clem, Witt and Courtney a pass, you're also not helping. If you're a politician hiding behind "bipartisanship," or if you see politics as being about trade-offs rather than struggle, you're in the way---and please step aside.

The Oregon AFL-CIO agenda continues to broaden and become more inclusive and more progressive. Every progressive tendency in the labor movement needs to be strengthened and supported. If you're a union member, you need to show up. If you're a woman in a union, you have the opportunity to participate in the Oregon Labor Candidate School. Every social movement shares the responsibility for building principled unity.

   Sandra Hernández-Lomelí of Latinos Unidos Siempre does the right thing by testifying at the legislature for farmworker labor rights. 


It's CRUNCH TIME for pro-tenant HB 2004. If it passes renters will score a historic victory, and If it fails we'll know that Senate Democrats voted for the landlords instead.

Leave a quick message with the following Democrats in the senate, to let them know renters are watching; tell them, "I insist you vote YES on HB 2004."

Ginny Burdick: (503) 986-1718
Rod Monroe: (503) 986-1724
Betsy Johnson: (503) 986-1716

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