Anna Williams was a particular bright spot among Oregon Democrats’ many 2018 election victories.
Before the college adviser unseated an incumbent Republican in House District 52 — a hyper-scenic swath of urban and rural Oregon stretching from Hood River to Gresham and up the slopes of Mount Hood — Democrats had spent a decade losing there.
But as she prepares to seek a second term next year, Williams might face a far different race. One of her key supporters in 2018 now pledges to have nothing to do with her.
“I probably wouldn’t have won without their support,” Williams said of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees Council 75, one of the state’s largest public-sector labor unions. “It’s a little heartbreaking thinking of not having them next time.”
Williams is just one Democratic lawmaker grappling with possible fallout from the passage of Senate Bill 1049, which made controversial changes to the state's pension system for public employees.
The bill was seen as an instrumental way for state and local entities to dodge ballooning pension payments in coming years — payments that risked looting a new tax for schools. But among its changes was what labor leaders considered a poison pill: a small reduction in retirement savings for members of the Public Employees Retirement System, or PERS.
Oregon’s powerful public employee unions were unable to apply enough pressure to dissuade lawmakers from passing the bill. Now some are vowing retribution for Democrats they say betrayed them.
The Oregon AFL-CIO, a federation of unions representing more than 140,000 dues-paying public- and private-sector workers, voted Sept. 22 not to support any candidate in the May 2020 primary who voted for SB 1049. While the group’s resolution doesn’t prevent its constituent unions from donating, AFL-CIO often serves as a central hub of political activity, leveraging members’ time into canvassing and phone banking for favored candidates.
“The primary is the first election cycle in front of us,” Oregon AFL-CIO president Graham Trainor said. “It was important to our affiliates to make a clear statement.”
Meanwhile, AFSCME Council 75 is going even further. The 24,000-employee union is declining to support candidates who backed the bill in both the primary and general election next year.
“Our members feel devalued,” AFSCME Council 75 associate director Joe Baessler said. “They feel like an outside group, the Legislature, just said, ‘You know what? The work you do is not worth as much as you think it is.’”
Other labor groups say they are weighing their options and looking with fresh skepticism at Democrats they once supported with little hesitation. How they ultimately respond could make this more than just a one-time policy scuffle. In a state where unions still wield wide influence in elections, their reaction has the power to reshuffle the makeup of the Legislature for years to come.
“I’ve been telling some legislators you’re back to square one, like a new candidate,” said Jaime Rodriguez, president of the American Federation of Teachers — Oregon. “Up and down the membership, we were all disgusted, frustrated and felt like we were left out of the discussion.”
The Problem With PERS
SB 1049 aimed to stave off spiking payments to Oregon’s pension system that threatened to siphon dollars away from a wide array of public services. But when measured against past attempts to solve Oregon's PERS problem, the bill was fairly tame.
In fact, about three-quarters of its impact came not from lessening the state's roughly $27 billion pension debt, but by elongating the timeline in which the state will pay it down. The provision that rankled unions required employees to divert money into the pension system that would have otherwise gone to their personal retirement accounts.
Projections suggested the bill would result in a cut of between 1% and 2% for most public workers. Labor groups saw any cut as unacceptable. They say the pension system’s troubles are not their doing and that it is unfair to expect union members to shoulder part of the burden.
Democratic leaders had pledged pension tweaks in exchange for some members' approval of a new schools tax and pressed on nonetheless. The PERS bill passed by a bare majority in the Senate. It appeared on the verge of failing in the House, but then House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, pressured Reps. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, and Andrea Salinas, D-Lake Oswego, to change their votes in a display that some suspect was more theater than thumbscrews.
In the end, 44 Democrats and three Republicans supported the bill. The extent to which labor unions might seek to make them pay for that vote is only starting to become clear.
Different Unions, Different Takes
AFL-CIO and AFSCME are big players in the labor movement’s political activity, but are far from alone. At a time when the labor movement is under attack in much of the country, Oregon’s unions have been able to retain their sway in the political process.
Service Employees International Union Local 503, the state’s largest union with more than 45,000 members, routinely spends tens of thousands of dollars helping Democratic candidates in contested races. SEIU has not decided if it will alter endorsement criteria in light of SB 1049, according to executive director Melissa Unger.
“That will happen later in the fall and winter as races get underway,” she said.
Some unions speculate SEIU Local 503 won’t penalize lawmakers for their votes, because of a provision in SB 1049 that PERS members making less than $30,000 a year are not impacted. That could have an outsize impact for SEIU, which represents lower-paid employees in schools, higher education and local government.
Unger dismisses that notion, noting SEIU was a loud voice against SB 1049's passage, and that it has joined into an ongoing lawsuit over the legislation. She also points to past instances of the union going after politicians for their votes. That includes its role in helping to unseat former Democratic state Sen. Rod Monroe last year, after he helped block rent control legislation in 2017.
“We’ve done a lot of things in the past to hold people accountable,” Unger said. “[SEIU members] won’t decide that PERS was not a big deal. The question is: Knowing that, how do you have a robust process?”
The Oregon Education Association, which represents many of the state’s public school teachers, has not taken a blanket position on endorsing lawmakers based on the PERS vote, union president John Larson said in a statement.
“Senate Bill 1049 will certainly be taken into account as we head into our political and electoral work next year,” Larson said. “Each year we ask candidates to complete a questionnaire and interview, and I know educators are planning to include questions about this issue. Lawmakers will have to answer for their vote.”
Other labor groups OPB spoke with were also reticent to issue hard-and-fast rules.
“We are not going to carte-blanche say ‘no’ to anybody,” said Alan Ferschweiler, legislative director at the Oregon State Firefighters Council, a member of the AFL-CIO. “We are going to fully investigate why they did what they did.”
The firefighters’ council has been more active in legislative politics in recent years than in the past, Ferschweiler said. The union was also an enthusiastic supporter of Gov. Kate Brown’s reelection campaign last year, its members’ yellow shirts standing out at campaign events and candidate debates.
That support stemmed from Brown’s stance on pension issues. Now, members who wouldn’t otherwise have backed her are upset by the governor’s support for SB 1049.
“We said, ‘This is not an issue about abortion. This is not an issue about guns,’” he said. “We focused on retirement security, and we asked our members to trust us. If anything, we are feeling pretty emotionally burned by that.”
Rodriguez, with the American Federation of Teachers, was candid about the two-way nature of relationships with lawmakers. Politicians may lean on union support to win election, but labor relies on their support for key legislation.
“What I’ve been letting my members know is, at the end of the day, take out this one vote and it was a good session for labor,” he said. “Would you rather have that same Legislature who made one bad vote, or have someone else come in who might take a lot of bad votes?”
And of course, not everyone buys this public hand-wringing — including some who’d love to see unions abandon Democrats next year.
“It’s smoke and mirrors,” said Julie Parrish, a former Republican representative who last year lost her seat to a union-backed Democrat, Rachel Prusak. “At the end of the day, if there is a Republican who is competitive against any of their bought-and-paid-for candidates, they will come in and rescue their investment.”
The Potential Fallout
A loss of union support could especially impact Democrats in the House, where the party is looking to defend a 38-22 supermajority in 2020. Labor has long been a key asset in helping candidates in tight districts flip or defend a seat, and some lawmakers in the state’s most competitive House districts wound up supporting SB 1049.
Williams, who won her race 2018 race by about 900 votes, is among them.
While much of her funding in the race came from House Democrats and the state Democratic Party, campaign finance records show she received roughly $76,000 from large labor unions — more than 10% of her total contributions. Not only that, but labor offered on-the-ground support Williams credits with helping her cross the finish line.
“AFSCME, specifically, knocked every knockable door in my district for the last 10 days of the race,” she said. She was adamant, though, that she had not gone back on any commitment she’d made to labor when voting for SB 1049. “I knew we were going to have to take a tough vote on PERS at some point during the session,” she said. “Even during the campaign we knew that. That was the vote.”
Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, another SB 1049 supporter, won an open House seat on the northern coast with more than $40,000 from AFSCME and the AFL-CIO. SEIU Local 503, of which Mitchell is a former member, kicked in nearly $140,000.
In total, large unions accounted for almost 40% of the $534,598 Mitchell raised in 2018. She wound up winning the left-leaning district by more than 1,800 votes.
On the central coast, Rep. Caddy McKeown, a moderate four-term Democratic lawmaker, benefited from nearly $29,000 from AFSCME on the way to winning her hotly contested district.
Rep. Janelle Bynum, D-Clackamas, used almost $40,000 from the union to prevail in a re-match race against Republican Lori Chavez-DeRemer. Bynum won by more than 2,000 votes in the race, nearly four times the margin by which she’d beaten Chavez-DeRemer two years earlier.
The risks for Democrats extend beyond general election races against Republicans.
At least one Democrat who voted for SB 1049, Rep. Rob Nosse of Portland, faces a credible primary opponent who has made clear she’ll make an issue of his vote. The challenger, Paige Kreisman, has support from the local Democratic Socialists of America chapter, and she’s running to Nosse’s left in his liberal Portland district.
In an August tweet, Kreisman cheered a decision by the AFL-CIO-affiliated Northwest Oregon Labor Council not to allow lawmakers who supported SB 1049 to speak at its annual Labor Day picnic, a mainstay of the Democratic campaign season.
“You don't get to turn your back on public workers, and then come grovel for votes at the picnic for those very same workers!” Kreisman wrote. “You don't get to cut public pensions and get away with it! @RobNosse sure wont!”
👏👏👏 Bravo NW OR Labor Council! 👏👏👏— Paige Kreisman (@PaigeKreisman) August 1, 2019
You don't get to turn your back on public workers, and then come grovel for votes at the picnic for those very same workers!
You don't get to cut public pensions and get away with it! @RobNosse sure wont! #orpol https://t.co/8IoML7JJQl
Nosse has a long history as an ally of labor, and even works for a union, the Oregon Nurses Association.
Many lawmakers contacted by OPB declined to speak on the record about the impact unions’ decision could have on their upcoming elections. Some didn’t respond to inquiries.
An exception was Rep. Marty Wilde, a freshman Democrat who won his Eugene-area House seat in 2018 and received more than $70,000 in contributions from the AFL-CIO, AFSCME and SEIU.
“Unions are always important when you’re a Democrat … and I hope they’re important to everyone who’s running a race,” Wilde said, also noting that his family has a history of union involvement. “I was in a targeted race, and they were very generous.”
What a lack of union support might or might not mean for his next race is unclear to Wilde. He and other lawmakers said they’ve avoided explicitly asking labor groups for money, in hopes that things might cool down.
Lawmakers OPB spoke to also noted that they had continued to work with labor groups on bills well after the vote on SB 1049, and they planned to do so in the future. In particular, many cited the passage of House Bill 2005, a bill to create a family and medical leave insurance program in the state. That legislation passed weeks after the pension bill.
“I hope I do enjoy their support, because I support their positions on 99% of issues,” Wilde said of AFSCME. “It was not clear to me from their resolution whether it was for the primary, the whole election cycle or the entire future I may or may not have in politics.”
If leading House Democrats are rejiggering their strategies for 2020 because of the PERS vote, they’re not saying. House Majority Leader Barbara Smith Warner, of Portland, declined to discuss how unions’ decisions not to support candidates might impact targeted races. Instead, a spokesperson sent along a statement from Smith Warner:
“I fully understand and respect the position of some labor unions on this issue,” the statement said. “And both personally and as a caucus, we remain firmly committed to working together with all of organized labor to advance the interests of working Oregonians.”
The Democratic primary race for secretary of state is also likely to be impacted by unions’ decision.
State Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, has already declared his candidacy for the position and voted yes on SB 1049. So did state Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, who is widely expected to enter the race in coming days. A third Democratic candidate, Jamie McLeod-Skinner, has not served in the Legislature and did not vote on SB 1049.
In the Senate, as many as four Democrats who voted for SB 1049 are up for reelection in 2020, though not all have formally announced they will run. Of those, three are in safe Democratic districts, and no primary challengers have yet emerged.
The fourth is Sen. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, who tapped more than $100,000 from labor to win his last race by less than 350 votes. Most of that money came from the SEIU and Oregon Education Association, which have not said they’d rule candidates out for support based on their SB 1049 votes.
Tom Powers, the caucus administrator for Senate Democrats, said Roblan has proven over time that he’s a friend of unions.
“Even people that they’re saying don’t pass their test anymore have definitely stood the test of the voting record on a lot of things,” Powers said.
That might be true. It also might not be enough to convince AFSCME, AFL-CIO and any labor groups that follow their lead to change their minds.
“Short term, if someone loses because of this vote then that’s not on us,” AFSCME’s Baessler said. “The members I’ve talked to … are willing to live with those consequences.”