Oregon’s largest private-sector union stunned state Capitol insiders this year when it announced it would attempt to recall a popular Democratic lawmaker.
United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 ultimately collected enough signatures to force a recall election against state Rep Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. The ensuing battle has pitted Oregon Democrats’ network of allies against a union made up of more than 27,000 members — largely grocery workers. It’s resulted in a dozen election complaints, an alleged assault, and ever-growing antipathy between the two sides.
But perhaps one of the strangest facets of the race is this: The political operative UFCW Local 555 hired to collect recall signatures was already being sued by its sister union in Washington for an attempt to meddle in union business.
A defamation lawsuit filed in July of last year accuses Joseph Emmons, owner of signature-gathering firm Osprey Field Services, of carrying out a “black ops” assignment to muck up a merger between two Washington UFCW chapters — one based in Seattle and the other in Spokane.
Emmons was spotted on surveillance cameras at a Spokane Safeway in January 2022, wearing a baseball cap and face mask, the suit says. In court documents, he acknowledges planting flyers reading “vote NO on any merger” throughout the store. The bright orange leaflets accused the president of Seattle’s UFCW local, Faye Guenther, of unethical payoffs and covering up sexual harassment by other union officials.
Emmons repeated the process at other stores in Spokane, and the same flyers had been anonymously mailed to grocery store employees around the state. The accusations of union coverups spurred discussions on social media about whether Washington’s UFCW leadership was trustworthy, the suit says.
But Emmons’ gambit didn’t work. Members of the two UFCW locals approved the merger in February 2022, solidifying the Washington union’s place as the largest UFCW chapter in the country.
Guenther, president of the newly united chapter, filed a defamation suit against Emmons after she was tipped off to his role.
“Guenther received a response from an individual acquainted with Defendant Emmons who disclosed to Guenther that Emmons had made several admissions about his involvement in the distribution of the defamatory flyers,” the suit says. “Specifically, Emmons admitted to traveling to Spokane on a ‘black ops’ assignment.”
Emmons has hired a trio of attorneys from the firm Davis Wright Tremaine, including Portland lawyer John DiLorenzo. DiLorenzo has made a name for himself with high-profile cases against the City of Portland and the state of Oregon. He declined to comment on Emmons’ case.
While he has admitted in court filings that he was paid to distribute the flyers in Spokane, Emmons argues they weren’t defamatory.
“The Flyer’s audience—UFCW members—would have understood the Flyer was part of the merger debate and would have viewed its statements as rhetoric, not objective fact,” Emmons’ attorneys wrote in a motion to have the case dismissed earlier this year.
There is no connection drawn in court filings between Emmons’ attempt to tamper with the Washington merger and UFCW Local 555, the union’s Oregon chapter that has reported paying his signature gathering firm nearly $150,000 this year. There’s also no mention of who paid for his covert assignment.
The Oregon union’s president, Dan Clay, declined to comment when asked if his chapter was involved. Political director Mike Selvaggio said he couldn’t discuss an open case.
“The fact that that’s being brought up is a transparent attempt to distract from the fact that Paul Holvey has a record that’s bad for workers pensions and bad for frontline employees,” Selvaggio said.
The recall campaign against Holvey already features Oregon’s formidable grocery union parting company with every other major labor group in the state and has left politicians in both parties scratching their heads. News a political contractor for UFCW Local 555 was caught tampering with another union chapter only adds to the intrigue.
Emmons’ ties to Local 555 extend beyond the Holvey recall. He worked with the union last year on a bid to recall board members at a Coos Bay hospital. And the firm he runs, Osprey Field Services, was founded in 2019 by Selvaggio, who said he has since divested himself. UFCW Local 555 has tapped Emmons for five ballot measures the union is considering putting forward next year.
“You’ve got a rogue group who’s recklessly spending the money of their members on a reckless recall,” said state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat who has represented the same turf as Holvey for nearly two decades. “That just is inappropriate and there’s no justification.”
Local 555 says there is plenty of reason for Holvey’s long-time constituents to send him packing. The union moved to recall Holvey in May after it became clear one of its signature bills was dead.
The proposal, House Bill 3183, would have required cannabis dispensaries to agree not to stand in the way of their workers’ ability to unionize in exchange for receiving a license to operate from the state.
Holvey believed the policy might be preempted by federal law and could lead to expensive litigation, an opinion partly informed by legislative attorneys. UFCW Local 555 says Holvey ignored its attempts to educate him on the issue.
“When it really comes down to it — when his vote matters, when he’s in control of something — he breaks the wrong way,” said Clay, president of UFCW Local 555. “When he is in a position of influence, things turn out really well for big business. They don’t turn out really well for small workers.”
The fight over whether to end Holvey’s nearly two-decade legislative career is raging in Eugene, where TV ads for and against the lawmaker began blanketing the TV airwaves this week, and both sides have been knocking on doors.
Ballots have already been sent to voters, and elections officials will tally the results on Oct. 3.