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Going its own way

Is Oregon’s largest private-sector union going its own way politically?

It’s too early to say conclusively, but as it’s said in journalism, three instances make a trend, and a string of instances this year suggest the organization is already there.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 represents more than 30,000 workers, the core working at grocery stores but many in other businesses as well. Over the years, its political activities usually have aligned with those of most other Northwest union organizations in generally supporting Democratic candidates. It has been going through some changes, including by expanding.. It has long covered Oregon and southwest Washington, but in 2021 it merged with the local in southern Idaho, so that it now reaches from the Pacific to Jackson, Wyoming.

It also has sought to expand into the legal cannabis business sector. Since Oregon’s legalization, the local has tried to organize its workers and has pressed legislation to mandate cannabis businesses sign “labor peace agreements” as a condition of licensure.

When the local took the idea to the Oregon Legislature as House Bill 3183 (Cannabis Workers Rights), it drew questions about whether it would survive a court challenge. Rep. Paul Holvey, who chaired the House Committee on Business and Labor where the measure was assigned, shared that concern and, with time running out in the session, diverted the rules committee, where it died.

That result came amidst what probably felt to the local like a reversal of fortunes. As one labor newspaper noted, “from 2015 to 2017, Local 555 was a big player in a string of wins in the Oregon Legislature, including the 2015 paid sick leave law, the 2016 minimum wage law and the 2017 fair scheduling law. But in the last few years, Local 555 has had a tough time getting its proposed legislation passed.”

After the cannabis measure failed, Local 555 officials struck back. They targeted Holvey, a Eugene Democrat long close to the strong labor organizations in his district, for recall. Local 555 cited “a long list of Holvey’s anti-worker actions and questionable conduct that warrant his removal, including Holvey’s dishonest framing of his opposition to pro-worker legislation, his long-standing double standard advantaging big business interests over those of working people, a chronic lack of engagement and other instances of poor conduct.”

But they got no real support among other labor organizations. While umbrella groups like the state AFL-CIO stayed out of the fight, 14 other labor organizations in the area – including the Ironworkers Local 29, Lane Professional Fire Fighters (IAFF Local 851), Oregon AFSCME, Oregon and Southern Idaho District Council of Laborers, Oregon Building Trades Council, Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs and the Oregon Nurses Association – sided with Holvey.

With the help of paid signature gatherers, Local 555 did get the recall on the ballot. But the voters supported Holvey by a stunning margin: About 90% voted not to recall him, a number far larger than that in most contested races.

But even before that election the local was back into ballot issues, saying on June 23 it would try to reverse the recently passed House Bill 2426, which opened the door to self-serve gasoline dispensing across the state.

Oregon was known for many years as one of two states – the other is New Jersey – requiring that attendants pump gas, a rule imposed in 1951 and long thought to be immutable. It has been eroded steadily in recent years, however, first with exemptions for rural areas and then broader pandemic-era allowances. Polling showed steadily growing support for self-serve gas.

HB 2426, passed and enacted this year, did away with the self-serve ban statewide, though it still requires businesses generally to provide a staff-service option. That latter provision may keep some service positions intact. Advocates also point out that Oregon has been experiencing a labor shortage in recent years.

Local 555 does have an interest in this issue, since it said it represents “nearly 800 workers at 63 grocery store fuel stations in Oregon,” though there’s little clear information on how many jobs have been lost through the law change, and in its statement on the initiative the local didn’t offer an estimate.

Local 555 spokesman Miles Eshaia said, “We have fuel stations within some of our bargaining units and we have seen not necessarily layoffs, but job loss to attrition so people who quit, they just don’t replace them because they don’t necessarily need to, because the new law allows for half of what they had before.”

Local 555 would need to collect about 117,000 signatures by next July to get a proposed reversal on the ballot. If it succeeds at that,  the odds of passage are not good, especially considering that other organizations haven’t jumped on board. While it probably would get more than 10% support, the measure seems to be trying to swim upstream.

The local also is taking on the statehouse with a series of other ballot proposals, which aim to revamp the ethics commission, end some closed door meetings, require some financial transparency for hospitals and pass into law a measure along the lines of the cannabis worker bill that failed in the last session.

Local 555 appears to be going its own way. Will others join in?

This column appeared originally in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

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