Politics

An Oregon union wants to end self-serve fuel, months after it began

By Dirk VanderHart (OPB)
Oct. 25, 2023 4:43 p.m.

UFCW Local 555 says it will push a ballot measure next year asking Oregonians to go back to the (recent) days of requiring attendants at gas pumps. Steve Novick, former Portland city commissioner, is also backing the proposal.

Alicia Tryon pumps her own gas Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, in Eugene, Ore. Oregon drivers have for months been able to pump their own gas for the first time since the 1950s, but a labor union is spearheading an effort to return to full-service fueling only.

Alicia Tryon pumps her own gas Friday, Aug. 4, 2023, in Eugene, Ore. Oregon drivers have for months been able to pump their own gas for the first time since the 1950s, but a labor union is spearheading an effort to return to full-service fueling only.

Jenny Kane / AP

For the last three months, drivers throughout Oregon have been free to gas up without the help of an attendant.

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Now, one of the state’s largest labor unions wants to put them back in their cars.

United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 submitted an initiative Wednesday that would reinstate a ban on self-service fueling. If UFCW can collect 117,173 valid signatures by July, the heated debate about who can be trusted to operate Oregon’s gas pumps will be decided by voters in November 2024.

“Getting self-serve gas hasn’t helped anyone,” said Michael Selvaggio, political director for UFCW Local 555. “It has, however, put people out of work, made [getting gas] less accessible and made stations more dangerous. The only pro side is if you’re an oil company.”

Signed on as chief petitioners of the measure are union president Dan Clay and former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick. Novick couldn’t be reached Wednesday, but he told OPB earlier this year that he was opposed to allowing self-serve fueling in Oregon for several reasons.

“I am concerned about jobs — I don’t like self-checkout at grocery stores either — but my primary concern is quirkiness,” Novick said in a June e-mail. “It’s an odd little thing that helps make Oregon, Oregon.”

Until Aug. 4, Oregon was one of just two states in the country that restricted many motorists from operating gas pumps on their own (the other is New Jersey). While stations in some rural parts of the state were allowed to offer self-serve, those in the most-populous areas required attendants. The policy was based on safety concerns around self-serve fueling that stretched back more than five decades, but polling suggested it had grown unpopular with Oregonians.

This year, gas station owners succeeded in a yearslong effort to end the practice, helping push a bipartisan bill that now allows all gas stations to designate at least some of their pumps as self-serve. Stations in more densely populated counties are required to retain fuel attendants for at least half of their pumps.

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UFCW Local 555 says it has a stake in the matter. It represents grocery employees around the state, including people who work at stores that offer fuel, like Safeway and Fred Meyer.

But the union stayed out of the fray earlier this year, when House Bill 2426 was winding its way through the Legislature. Selvaggio says he was convinced to hold his powder because of assurances from House Majority Leader Julie Fahey, a Eugene Democrat and chief sponsor of the fueling bill, that a proposal to make it easier for cannabis workers to unionize would also pass.

“If the terms were good enough and if we had on the other end a bill passed that was going to increase and facilitate union organizing in other industries, I think that’s a session I can walk out of and say I’m proud of the results,” Selvaggio said this week.

But UFCW now says Fahey didn’t follow through, waiting until testimony was closed on the gas bill before revealing the bill on cannabis workers was dead. The union was so furious about its proposal’s demise that it spent more than $300,000 attempting to recall another lawmaker, Eugene Democratic Rep. Paul Holvey. That effort was defeated by an overwhelming margin earlier this month.

In a text message Wednesday, Fahey said Selvaggio is “100% making that up.”

“He made vague hints that he wanted a deal, but I certainly never entertained or agreed to anything of the sort,” she wrote. “That’s just not how I operate — I found his attempts to wheel and deal disappointing.”

The proposed measure UFCW filed Wednesday would do more than simply roll back House Bill 2426. It would require gas station attendants at every station in the state, eliminating the previous system that allowed self-serve fueling in some rural areas. It would continue the practice, however, of allowing motorcyclists to gas up on their own — so long as a gas station attendant handed them the fuel nozzle.

”Oregon stood shoulder to shoulder with New Jersey as the last bastions of resistance to oil company giveaways at the expense of jobs and accessibility,” the proposal says. “The Beaver State should restore this historic alignment with the Garden State.”

Supporters of the self-serve gas bill cast the union’s attempt as misguided on Wednesday.

“This appears to be yet another failed power grab by UFCW leadership and waste of hard earned worker dues,” said state Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Albany, a chief sponsor of the bill.

The gas measure is now one of six proposals that UFCW Local 555 has filed for next year, none of which have been cleared to collect signatures yet. They include proposals to rein in political contributions, stiffen penalties for lawmakers who break ethics rules and limit when lawmakers can meet in private. The union also could ask voters to pass the policy on unionizing cannabis workers that lawmakers failed to approve this year.

Whether or not UFCW has time to collect enough signatures to get all — or even one — of those proposals on the ballot remains to be seen.

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