Standing Up to Anti-Union Democrats


After years of painful backsliding, the state workers of Oregon’s largest union, SEIU 503, recently stood firm and scored a big win in their contract negotiations against the state’s anti-union Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber.

After again demanding many anti-union concessions, Oregon’s Democratic governor backed down when the union proved organized and ready to wage a statewide strike, which would have shut down many state-run agencies, including highway repair, Department of Motor Vehicles, Parks and Recreation, food stamps, the Employment Department, Child Welfare, Department of Revenue, and others.

SEIU 503 is a union of 50,000 plus members, the core of which consists of Oregon public employees. On paper the union looked impressive after having expanded its membership in mostly non-public areas, including private home-health care.

But the union’s power had been hollowed out in preceding years, due to successive Democratic governors demanding concessionary contracts from the state workers, who pay most of the union’s dues while having the most cohesive work units and political power.

SEIU 503 had suffered from a disease that— if left untreated— was potentially fatal: concessionary bargaining. Consequently, with each new contract wages were lowered, members’ health care contributions increased, and the governor continued to demand that public employees be blamed for the budget deficits caused by the recession that the banks triggered and the lowering of taxes on corporations.

The life force of the union was being sucked dry by years of weak contracts, and eventually many members began to question why they were paying dues to a union that appeared incapable of protecting their wages and benefits. Morale was low. Hope for the union’s future — and its members’ livelihood — started to dim.

Sensing blood, a variety of right-wing funded organizations and politicians were preparing the anti-union deathblow, with ballot measures — like “right to work” legislation — that intend to decapitate unions in Oregon, as happened in Wisconsin and elsewhere.

But after this big win, SEIU 503 is in a better position to defend itself against these right-wing attacks, and in a better bargaining position for contract negotiations next time, since members will want to expand on their momentum to regain the losses they’ve incurred in recent contracts.

This win required that the union out-muscle nearly every politician in the state, who all lined up to vote against the union. The Democrats, who control Oregon’s House and Senate, co-authored a bill that illegally attacked the pensions of current and future retirees (a bill the union is challenging in court). After this treachery was passed, the Oregon Democrats pushed for yet another anti-pension bill, which they called a “grand bargain” — raising minimal taxes on the wealthy in exchange for even more pension cuts. The Grand Bargain failed by one vote, although the Democratic Governor has announced he will pursue it again in a special session.

Many — if not most — of these Democrats were supported by Oregon labor unions and they proceeded immediately to stab unions in the back. Oregon Democrats are now parroting the longstanding Republican propaganda that blames unions for the state’s budget problems.

The Democrats now look at organized labor through the same anti-union lens of the Republicans; the budget was to be balanced on the backs of public employees while the bigbanks and corporations — who caused the recession — were given new tax breaks.

For example, the Democratic governor called the Democratic-controlled legislature into “special session” exclusively to give NIKE a special tax break, which of course will be expanded to other corporations in Oregon. This is happening at the same time that the Democrats and Republicans — and their associated media mouthpieces — both pour blame on unions for the bad economy, which tends to drive public perception against unions.

Oregon’s anti-union, pro-corporation dynamic is not unique. Since the start of the Great Recession, the Democrats nationwide have veered even sharper to the right in regards to labor — what little difference remains between Democrats and Republicans over unions is now a matter of degrees within a shared, bi-partisan ideology.

Although Republicans have wanted to institute anti-union laws like “Right to Work,” the Democrats have helped to weaken these unions and made them vulnerable to such attacks — the old one-two knockout punch combination. Strong unions that bargain strong contracts are less vulnerable to Republican attacks.

It’s undoubtedly true that the Democrats rightward political drift is, in part, the byproduct of a labor movement that refuses to hold them accountable for their actions. In Oregon, for example, the current Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, had previously proved himself an enemy of organized labor when, in 1995, SEIU 503 went on a statewide strike against him.

When Kitzhaber re-entered politics in 2010, SEIU 503 and the other unions agreed to back him on a “lesser of two evils” basis, regardless of his public statements that aimed at “curbing pension costs” and other anti-union, Republican-inspired rhetoric. When the Democrats co-authored the anti-pension bill, instead of publicly denouncing it the unions were mostly quiet, a response that empowered the Democrats to double down later for a Grand Bargain. Passivity doesn’t stop your political foes, but invites more aggression.

The key lesson in SEIU’s recent victory was that the union proved it was not dependent on Democratic politicians for favors; unions have an independent power completely separate from politicians, expressed most strongly through their ability to mobilize the membership for a strike.

SEIU 503 defeated the concessions demanded by the governor by organizing strike petitions in the worksites, staging statewide worksite actions, organizing numerous regional membership meetings to discuss bargaining proposals and strategy, phone banking members to educate and elicit feedback, and holding statewide in-person strike votes that resulted in a strong “yes” from the membership, further empowering the bargaining team. Because of these and other actions the governor backed down and the membership now has their first contract victory in years with zero concessions, wage increases, as well as protections against privatization and other improvements in working conditions.

Now, many within SEIU 503 are re-thinking their relationship with the Democrats. Most members now realize that the Democrats are transitioning from “fair weather friends” to outright enemies; and most union members do not want to dedicate their time or money for their political enemies, whether or not the enemy is considered a “lesser evil.”

Unions in Oregon have already started “candidate schools” for members interested in running for public office. And although laudable, this small step towards political independence must be accompanied by a larger investment from all unions toward creating a political party to represent working people with the resources and organizational ability to challenge the two-party system once and for all.

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

Shamus Cooke is a social service worker, trade unionist, and writer for Workers Action (www.workerscompass.org). He can be reached at shamuscooke@gmail.com

October 06, 2015
Vijay Prashad
Afghanistan, the Terrible War: Money for Nothing
Mike Whitney
How Putin will Win in Syria
Paul Street
Yes, There is an Imperialist Ruling Class
Paul Craig Roberts
American Vice
Kathy Kelly
Bombing Hospitals: 22 People Killed by US Airstrike on Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Kunduz, Afghanistan
Ron Jacobs
Patti Smith and the Beauty of Memory
David Macaray
Coal Executive Finally Brought Up on Criminal Charges
Norman Pollack
Cold War Rhetoric: The Kept Intelligentsia
Cecil Brown
The Firing This Time: School Shootings and James Baldwin’s Final Message
Roger Annis
The Canadian Election and the Global Climate Crisis
W. T. Whitney
Why is the US Government Persecuting IFCO/Pastors for Peace Humanitarian Organization?
Jesse Jackson
Alabama’s New Jim Crow Far From Subtle
Joe Ramsey
After Umpqua: Does America Have a Gun Problem….or a Dying Capitalist Empire Problem?
Murray Dobbin
Rise Up, Precariat! Cheap Labour is Over
October 05, 2015
Michael Hudson
Parasites in the Body Economic: the Disasters of Neoliberalism
Patrick Cockburn
Why We Should Welcome Russia’s Entry Into Syrian War
Kristine Mattis
GMO Propaganda and the Sociology of Science
Heidi Morrison
Well-Intentioned Islamophobia
Ralph Nader
Monsanto and Its Promoters vs. Freedom of Information
Arturo Desimone
Retro-Colonialism: the Exportation of Austerity as War By Other Means
Robert M. Nelson
Noted Argentine Chemist Warns of Climate Disaster
Matt Peppe
Misrepresentation of the Colombian Conflict
Barbara Dorris
Pope Sympathizes More with Bishops, Less with Victims
Clancy Sigal
I’m Not a Scientologist, But I Wish TV Shrinks Would Just Shut Up
Chris Zinda
Get Outta’ Dodge: the State of the Constitution Down in Dixie
Eileen Applebaum
Family and Medical Leave Insurance, Not Tax Credits, Will Help Families
Pierre-Damien Mvuyekure
“Boxing on Paper” for the Nation of Islam, Black Nationalism, and the Black Athlete: a Review of “The Complete Muhammad Ali” by Ishmael Reed
Lawrence Ware
Michael Vick and the Hypocrisy of NFL Fans
Gary Corseri - Charles Orloski
Poets’ Talk: Pope Francis, Masilo, Marc Beaudin, et. al.
Weekend Edition
October 2-4, 2015
Henry Giroux
Murder, USA: Why Politicians Have Blood on Their Hands
Mike Whitney
Putin’s Lightning War in Syria
Jennifer Loewenstein
Heading Toward a Collision: Syria, Saudi Arabia and Regional Proxy Wars
John Pilger
Wikileaks vs. the Empire: the Revolutionary Act of Telling the Truth
Gary Leupp
A Useful Prep-Sheet on Syria for Media Propagandists
Jeffrey St. Clair
Pesticides, Neoliberalism and the Politics of Acceptable Death
Lawrence Ware – Paul Buhle
Insurrectional Black Power: CLR James on Race and Class
Joshua Frank
The Need to Oppose All Foreign Intervention in Syria
Oliver Tickell
Jeremy Corbyn’s Heroic Refusal to be a Nuclear Mass Murderer
Helen Yaffe
Che’s Economist: Remembering Jorge Risquet
Mark Hand
‘Rape Rooms’: How West Virginia Women Paid Off Coal Company Debts
Michael Welton
Junior Partner of Empire: Why Canada’s Foreign Policy Isn’t What You Think
Yves Engler
War Crimes in the Dark: Inside Canada’s Special Forces
Arno J. Mayer
Israel: the Wages of Hubris and Violence
W. T. Whitney
Cuban Government Describes Devastating Effects of U. S. Economic Blockade
Brian Cloughley
The US-NATO Alliance Destroyed Libya, Where Next?