Oregon Democrats Betray Unions in the Middle of Teacher Uprising

25,000 educators rally on May 8th in Portland, Oregon.

Oregon’s big labor unions — OEA, SEIU and AFSCME — delivered the Governorship and a supermajority to the Democrats in last November’s election. Democrats are now showing their gratitude by attacking the pensions of OEA, SEIU and AFSCME members — teachers, state workers, and city and county workers who receive a PERS pension.

Kate Brown began the betrayal by announcing mid-legislative session her framework to slash PERS. Senate Republicans felt emboldened enough by the Governor that they fled Salem to deny the quorum needed for voting for education revenue. Republicans walked out of the legislature while teachers walked out across the state — in the largest teacher mobilization in Oregon history on May 8th.

Instead of using the state police to haul the renegade Republicans back to Salem, the Democratic supermajority instantly acquiesced to their demands: removing gun control and vaccine legislation, and most importantly, bowing to the GOP demands that any revenue bill be connected to PERS cuts.

The Democrats immediately put forth a new plan to cut pensions, luring Republicans back to vote on education revenue, and now the GOP wants their piece of the quid pro quo with the PERS bill passage and the governor’s signature.

It should be mentioned that the PERS funding “crisis” is manufactured, and can easily be fixed by extending the repayment schedule to the ‘unfunded’ portion, from 20 to 30 years. The Democrats’ recent anti-PERS bill even acknowledges this — their plan extends repayment from 20 to 22 years, but at 30 years the problem vanishes.

The Unions Respond

A coalition of Oregon unions started a campaign to protect PERS called ‘Keep Oregon’s Promise’. On May 10th this coalition called on lawmakers to reject proposals to cut PERS, while threatening a lawsuit if the cuts passed.

But no other threats were made. The unions didn’t threaten to challenge Democrats in primary elections if they voted for the PERS cuts. The unions didn’t call for mobilizations in Salem to stop the bill’s passage. Just a lawsuit after it passed.

This is the key difference between Oregon’s passive labor movement and the teacher mobilizations across the country, where big victories were won because of ongoing mass mobilizations and other direct action.

For example, recently in West Virginia the Republican-lead legislature threatened to pass a bill to promote charter schools. The teachers went on the offensive, called a strike and mobilized at the capitol. The Republicans cancelled the bill in the face of union power in action.

In Oregon, unions asked members to testify in Salem about PERS and send emails to legislators, but the higher stakes require bolder action. The massive teacher action on May 8th must be the beginning of the movement, not the end. Teachers didn’t walk out to have their retirement slashed.

Disturbingly, another union coalition called ‘Our Oregon’ — consisting of many of the same unions that are members of ‘Keep Oregon’s Promise’ — sent an email on May 10th celebrating passage of the revenue bill, while asking people to “thank our legislators today for leading the charge to invest in Oregon’s students.”

It’s problematic to tell union members to thank the very people trying to steal their pensions, since it’s difficult to mobilize and fight pension theft while thanking your attackers.

The Democrats are in the middle of a major betrayal, and union members are being given mixed messages with no concrete path to protect their pensions (after being told that there would be no need to worry about pension theft because unions won Democrats a supermajority in November).

The Call to Action and the Risk of Inaction

Sometimes unions are forced to accept cuts because they lack the leverage and power to stop them. This is not the case today. May 8th showed that there is massive energy in the teacher’s movement that can be funneled to stop these cuts, but calling and emailing legislators won’t be enough.

There’s still time to stop PERS cuts but the window is shrinking. If OEA, SEIU and AFSCME made a joint call to their members to walk and rally in Salem to stop the cuts, the Democrats would lose their nerve even quicker than they did with the tiny Republican “walk out”.

If these same three unions threatened to run candidates against any Democrat who voted for the cuts, the threat to PERS would vanish. Union leadership must express the same urgency around PERS that their members feel, and actively challenge the leadership of the Democratic Party — Governor Brown, Tina Kotek, Peter Courtney, and Ginny Burdick — who are pushing for these cuts.

The risk of inaction cannot be overestimated. In the age of Janus everything must be done to keep the trust and allegiance of the membership. This means that important fights must actually be fought, not dodged. Members must feel that they belong to a powerful union capable of protecting their interests. This is why people pay dues and will continue to do so, and its how passive unionism can create a shrinking membership. Inaction will teach Democrats that they can attack unions without negative repercussions, leading to more cuts in the future.

In 1995 state workers — represented by SEIU 503 — went on a statewide strike to stop PERS cuts. Rank and file teachers surely know that one rally wasn’t going to be enough; this wasn’t how teachers won in West Virginia, Kentucky, or Arizona.

Teachers and other public employees need another day — or days — of action, to show legislators that funding education can’t come at the expense of teachers and other PERS recipients, and we need it now.

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