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Oregon Capitol aides are one step closer to forming a union

Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019.
Sun glints off the pioneer atop the Oregon Capitol building in Salem, Ore., Saturday, June 29, 2019.

Aides in the Oregon State Capitol have cleared a major hurdle in their quest to become the first employees of their kind in the U.S. to form a union.

In an order issued Tuesday, the Oregon Employment Relations Board roundly rejected a list of objections to a 180-member staff union raised by the state Legislature. Instead, the ERB sided with employees who’ve contended that they are eligible under state collective bargaining laws to organize.

Legislative aides are now planning to hold an official election by mail in coming days that will decide whether they are the first partisan Capitol staff in the country to form their own union. It was not immediately clear whether the Legislature, which is being represented by the Oregon Department of Justice in objecting to the union push, would ask the ERB to reconsider.

“Everybody’s pretty happy about the ruling,” said Tony Ruiz, an organizer with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 89, which is seeking to represent legislative aides.

The 43-page ERB order methodically runs down a series of arguments that the Legislature has raised to a staff union, rejecting each in turn.

The Legislature has argued that Capitol staff do not qualify for representation under the Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act, or PECBA, contending instead that they are subject to separate personnel rules. It also argued that, because of the partisan political nature of the Capitol, aides don’t fall into a natural “community of interest” like other worker groups, and that many employees have confidential, supervisory, or management roles that preclude them from being union members.

The ERB disagreed with all of those major objections. It found, for instance, that the Legislature had never specifically excluded Capitol aides from the collective bargaining law, when it could easily do so. It also ruled that aides have largely similar workplace expectations and job descriptions, making them a fitting organizing unit. Even if some aides might not ultimately qualify for a union because of management, supervisory, or confidential duties, the ERB said, it was not enough to block the larger group of employees from taking a vote.

“In sum, we conclude that we have jurisdiction over this matter and that the petitioned-for unit is an appropriate unit,” the three-member ERB wrote in the order. “Accordingly, we will direct the Election Coordinator to conduct a secret, mail-ballot election…”

Under state law, a majority of the 180 employees who would be represented in the proposed unit will need to vote yes in order for the union to become official. Employees would then begin contract negotiations with the Legislature.

The subject of a staff union has been discussed in the statehouse for years, according to longtime aides. The effort took on new energy in 2020, following changes to Capitol policies around pay and harassment policies, among other reasons. Employees first filed a petition to unionize in December, but wound up refiling to reflect updated job classifications that took effect in January.

Unions are a frequent flashpoint in Salem, where many Democrats have come to count on union support during election season, and Republicans view organized labor as a political foe.

That polarity was in clear view on Monday, when the Senate took up a bill that would clarify who will be responsible for bargaining with Capitol staff if they succeed in forming a union. Under Senate Bill 759, Legislative Administrator Brett Hanes or his successor would take the lead in bargaining any contract with employees.

But even that relatively small tweak proved contentious.

“To me there’s a huge difference between employees of an executive branch organizing versus employees of the legislative branch,” said state Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer. “Elected officials would … have employees who belong to a union that would be funding and opposing the elected officials. It’s a lot different.”

Backers of the union effort argue that’s not the case. IBEW Local 89 does not take an active role in state campaigns, or give directly to lawmakers. The union, however, is part of the Oregon AFL-CIO, a federation of unions that frequently supports Democratic candidates.

“They’re aware of the potential perception of that conflict of interest and they wanted to be sure to avoid it,” said state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, a chief sponsor of the bill.

SB 759 wound up passing the Senate by a bare majority, with two Democrats, Sens. Lee Beyer and Betsy Johnson, voting against the bill, and one Independent, Sen. Brian Boquist, voting for it.

Copyright 2021 Oregon Public Broadcasting