My, how the world of Oregon politics has changed in two years. Twenty-two months ago The Oregonian reported that John Kitzhaber, then preparing to run for an unprecedented fourth term in November 2014, held a press conference to announce a “grand bargain.” In a series of backroom meetings, Dr. John had persuaded rival union and business groups sponsoring several competing proposals to back off from going to the November ballot two years ago. In response to Kitzhaber’s public call for a mutual stand-down on looming 2014 ballot measure fights between unions and business interests, the state’s largest public employee unions and sponsors of right-to-work and dues check-off measures agreed to formally withdraw 12 measures from the 2014 ballot measure process.
The decision to avoid competing ballot measures followed an agreement reached in February 2014 between the Service Employee International Union and many of the state’s largest hospitals. Following that agreement, an additional five ballot initiative petitions were withdrawn. As a result of Kitzhaber’s efforts, the state’s major public employee unions agreed to drop several proposed initiatives that would raise taxes on well-to-do individuals and larger corporations. In exchange, business groups dropped proposed measures that would weaken unions by allowing public employees to opt out of paying union dues. Kitzhaber said at the time: “Instead of spending millions on ballot measure battles, we have an agreement that provides an opportunity for people to work with one another on solving Oregon’s biggest problems.”
Fast-forward to 2016. The national scene speaks for itself. Even if you possibly could have predicted this Republican presidential primary fiasco two years ago, the only person who would’ve believed you would have been your cellmate at the state hospital. And even he wouldn’t untie your straight jacket! Here in Oregon, Dr. John is gone and there is no grand bargain in sight. Instead we are likely to see a full array of ballot measures targeted to turn out single-issue voters. In addition to an initiative to raise Oregon’s minimum wage to $15 per hour over three years, you will also see a measure to require English to be Oregon’s “official language” and a measure to prohibit public funding of abortions.
And Jill Gibson, Portland businesswoman, is sponsoring Initiative 69, the so-called “Public Employee Choice Act” — the current version of the right-to-work (right to starve) measure. The unions have responded with their own version of a minimum wage increase as well as a gross receipts tax proposal that is polling very well. There are campaign finance reform initiatives that are approved to circulate, as well as clean energy initiatives — hell, there’s even an initiative to get rid of Daylight Savings Time! The 2015 Legislature even sent a referral that allows the city of Damascus to disincorporate! Doesn’t Syria have enough problems?
The anti-union, right-to-work issue took a different twist last week when the U.S. Supreme Court announced it would issue a decision this summer on Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association. Although progressives breathed a sigh of relief over the Supreme Court’s previous handling of challenges to the Affordable Care Act and its protection of same sex couples’ right to marry, Freidrichs is the case that public sector unions have been trying to make go away — because it could make the whole public sector “right-to-work.” Conservatives have continually argued that public sector unions are political in nature, because their employers are the government, and that dues going to politics violates employees’ right to abstain from political activity. But the court ruled that an individual’s right to belong or not belong to an organization had to be weighed against the threat to labor peace if “free riders” got the benefits of a contract without contributing. Signing up union members could get a lot harder if the alternative is a free ride. Since Wisconsin’s 2010 public sector right-to-work law (it also barred dues deduction and limited the scope of negotiations), AFSCME has lost two-thirds of its members — dropping from over 60,000 to 20,000. The Wisconsin Education Association Council has lost 30 percent.
Now, what anti-union forces couldn’t win at the ballot box, they might get through the courts. Last week, Chief Justice John Roberts and the Supreme Court signaled it will set American union rights back 50 years, doing just what George W. Bush put him there to do. Here in Oregon we’ll face a right-to-work ballot measure attacking public employees in a similar fashion, but it might be moot by November. Stay tuned.