Few have fought as relentlessly for the rights of Oregon’s workers as Tom Chamberlain.
He’s been deeply involved in labor organizing since the 1980s and today is immersed in some of the most urgent issues facing low-wage workers – from efforts to turn his organization’s office space into affordable housing to lobbying the Legislature for changes that would benefit everyone in Oregon’s workforce.
After graduating from North Portland’s Roosevelt High School in 1972, and following a brief stint in the U.S. Air Force, Chamberlain became a firefighter with Portland Fire and Rescue, where he worked nearly 30 years.
He also joined the Portland Firefighters Association Local 43 and moved up the ranks of the union until 1998, when he became its president.
After firefighting, he became policy adviser to former Gov. Ted Kulongoski, a position he left in 2005 when he was unanimously elected president of Oregon AFL-CIO, a position he holds today.
With more than 300,000 members among its affiliated unions, Oregon AFL-CIO represents a wide range of professions, such as steelworkers, plumbers, teachers and letter carriers.
But whether you belong to a union or not, Oregon AFL-CIO’s legislative agendas are likely to affect you. It was a strong advocate for raising the state’s minimum wage and for giving all Oregonians paid sick days, and next session it will be advocating for fair scheduling laws.
While union membership across the U.S. has declined considerably since its peak in the 1950s, membership in Oregon remains higher than the national average, with roughly 16 percent of workers represented in 2015, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
And Oregon’s unions are growing, Chamberlain said.
While membership was lost during the recession, he said unions have not only made up for those losses, but the United Food and Commercial Workers International, Machinists Union and American Federation of Teachers are bringing in thousands of new members, organizing employees at Portland State University, Portland International Airport and in the private sector.
We recently sat down with Chamberlain at the Oregon AFL-CIO’s Portland headquarters, about a half block off Southeast Powell Boulevard. We began by discussing the shift among some of the nation’s most prominent blue-collar unions toward working with, rather than against, environmentalists.
Tom Chamberlain: The manufacturing unions have been attacked on two fronts: One is trade agreements – that devastated our manufacturing base – and environmental issues have been a secondary hit.
Now groups like the Steelworkers, who have probably been as impacted as any union that we have in the federation, have actually been on the forefront of some type of transition.
When you talk to manufacturing unions, it’s not that we don’t believe in global warming; it’s that we know this transition from carbon-based fuels to a greener type of energy, it’s going to come with costs, and those costs will fall disproportionately on our membership.
So the Steelworkers have formed the BlueGreen Alliance, which brings labor and environmentalists together in trying to create some type of transition for their folks, and the transition is difficult because we know, for example, in the forest industry, when we put some restriction on logging practices, there was a loss of family-wage jobs.
We believed we could train our way out of it, and it never happened because oftentimes you can’t train your way out of it when the folks that are being hit are in their 50s.
You have part of the labor movement that tends to be more environmentalist focused, and you have another group that’s being impacted, trying to figure a way out.
Whether it’s transition or just straight-up environmental issues, I think there’s a lot of experimentation occurring on the national level, and in various states.
Then I see unions like IBEW, which is the electricians union, that have really embraced this changing environment as it relates to solar and wind and improved grids, and really being on the forefront of that.
If you go out to IBEW 48, they have a solar-powered building, and they’ve really trained their apprentices to have the skills to meet this new industry, so it just depends on the union.
Emily Green: About three years ago, the national AFL-CIO reversed its stance on undocumented immigrants, who some labor organizations have traditionally seen as a threat to jobs, and instead has launched a campaign in support of immigration reform. Why is the AFL-CIO sticking its neck out to support workers that might be undercutting wages?
T.C.: First of all, I don’t believe they undercut wages. If you look at the data, it proves the opposite. If you look at Social Security, for example, here you have undocumented workers who can’t collect Social Security, who go to work every day, pay into a system, they will never get a benefit.
We at the Oregon AFL-CIO believe that all workers, whether you are documented or not, have rights.
CAUSA, which is the largest immigrants’ rights group in the state, is housed in this office. We have a very strong relationship with them.
It’s really easy, after watching the (first) presidential debate, to see why Donald Trump has some appeal.
If you don’t know undocumented workers, if they’re just faces in a crowd, it’s really easy to villainize them.
But if you go to a CAUSA or PCUN rally and a speaker comes out and they’re a mother who’s being deported and her kids and her American husband are in the audience – that changes you.
If you’re a human being, you have to sympathize with those folks, and the bottom line is, NAFTA was one of the drivers that destroyed the collective farm in Mexico – that undermined their economy. We did that, and we have a responsibility to those folks.
Anybody who tells you they wouldn’t flee a place where they can’t earn a living for their kids to find a better life, they are crazy, because I think that every human being would do that. I feel pretty strongly about this issue.
FURTHER READING: Worker exploitation in Portland’s building boom
E.G.: The decline of unions has, in part, been tied to the decline in wages of even nonunion workers. Is this a dynamic you’ve seen reflected in Portland?
T.C.: Yes, absolutely. If you go back to the late ’70s and ’80s, when our proportion of the workforce that belonged to unions was high – in Oregon it was around 33 percent – what was negotiated in contracts was given to everyone, because people wanted to be competitive.
But now as our density has shrunk, in Oregon, we’re one of the highest states – our union density is 17 to 18 percent – but it’s not high enough to impact non-union workers.
What you’re seeing is the rise of legislative benefits – sick days, minimum wage, retirement – things we passed last legislative session, and business chafed at that.
But business can’t have it both ways. They can’t say, “No we don’t want a union,” and then say, “We’re going to oppose this legislation because it adds to our cost.”
Folks need a safety net. Folks need a minimum standard of living and a minimum of benefits to maintain their livelihood.
You’re either going to do that legislatively, or you’re going to change the laws that were put into effect in 1935 (the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 established most workers have the right to organize a union) that have not really been changed since then, except for in 1947 (Labor-Management Act of 1947, which union leaders called a “slave labor” bill, made significant revisions to the 1935 legislation).
You can’t keep workers with outmoded laws, where the employer can come in and have one-on-one meetings and tell you, “If you join a union, you’ll be fired” or “If you join a union, we’re going to offshore this company” or “If you join a union, our profits will go down, and we’ll close the doors.”
This country needs to be about the people, not corporations, and we have an unbalanced system.
I think what Americans have lost sight of is that there is an equation here. The business owner puts up capital; that’s his or her investment in the company. The worker’s investment is probably, to me, more valuable, because it’s their time. It’s pieces of their lives that they could have been doing other things. That has value, too.
Since the decline of the labor movement, we no longer have the collective voice we once had.
E.G.: What industries in Portland would you say are most staunchly opposed to labor union?
T.C.: You name it. I’ll tell you right now, there is not a business owner today that if you walked in and say, “We want a union,” that they’re going say, “Oh great! Come on down!”
The first thing the owner is going to say, if they’re a small business, is “What’d I do wrong?” If it’s a big business, it’s usually, “I’m losing control,” and there’s a fight.
We tried to organize a facility that had 300 workers, they spoke seven different languages, and probably 65 percent of those workers had signed cards saying they wanted to join a union.
And the facility brought in a union buster who was an attorney from Chicago, had one-on-one meetings, actually gave people gift certificates to Starbucks if they came in and sat down and talked to them. Most of these folks were here on visas, and he told them, “If you join a union, and you went home, you won’t have a job to come back to.” In other words, you couldn’t come back to the United States.
On the day of the election, the floor supervisor, who happened to speak the language of those seven different groups, escorted, one by one, those workers to the voting booth, talking to them all the way.
Do we have oppositions to unions in this city? Yeah, we do. We lost that election by the way. When people are scared, it takes great courage to join a union.
E.G.: Can you tell me what facility that was?
T.C.: I can’t. It happened last spring. It was one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever seen.
Editor’s note: Chamberlain’s description of events is consistent with Northwest Labor Press reports of union-busting activities at Portland Specialty Baking in Gresham earlier this year.
The bakery “makes pretzels, cakes, donuts, bagels and muffins for Starbucks, Jamba Juice, Walmart, Costco and Winco for wages of around $10 an hour,” Don McIntosh reported in the union-supported newspaper.
A class-action lawsuit filed on behalf of seven workers by the Northwest Workers Justice Project in August claims the bakery required workers to work more than 13 hours in a 24-hour period and systematically failed to pay overtime.
E.G.: Are these union-busting tactics pretty typical of your experience?
T.C.: It’s very typical, the tactics that are used. There is always a reliance on fear to stop an organizing drive, but I’ve never seen anything quite like this.
E.G.: It seems like Burgerville has been successful. Do you know what they did that enabled them to form a union?
T.C.: Well, they haven’t actually formed a (traditional) union. What they asked Burgerville to do is recognize card check, (which means the majority of the workers have signed cards indicating intent to join a union). Burgerville, a month ago, is starting to have one-on-one meetings with their workers, so it’s going down the same path.
FURTHER READING: Why I'm forming a Burgerville union (commentary)
E.G.: You said the AFL-CIO has played a big role in the housing crisis, and you are doing something rather interesting with your office. Can you talk a little bit about that?
T.C.: What we are planning on doing is tearing down this facility. We have a pretty big chunk of land, eight-tenths of an acre. And we’re going to tear down this and build somewhere between 100 and 120 units of low-income housing – right here on this spot.
The busiest bus line in the city is right there on Powell, so there is a lot of convenience here. We’re not that far from downtown Portland, so it has a lot of benefit. The labor movement is more than just representing workers; it’s a social movement. It should be a vehicle for change.
Our goal is not only to create low-income housing, but to create a child care facility so that folks in the neighborhood and folks who live here have the opportunity to have child care close to where they live, but to really make it something special.
That’s the goal – what I’m learning is, a lot of my pipe dreams are being shot down because it comes down to what can you afford, but it’s still on the table.
E.G.: What are AFL-CIO and Oregon Strong Voice’s legislative priorities for next session?
T.C.: Fair scheduling is a high priority for us. Family leave is a big priority for us. The transportation package is crucial.
Because of the trade agreements, we live in a very competitive world and we rely on getting goods and services and people to work. If we don’t have good roads, mass transit, we cannot maintain our competitiveness, and not only is it crucial for us to maintain competitiveness; it also creates good-wage jobs and getting people to and from good-wage jobs. The transportation package – it’s the fight.
E.G.: Tell me a little about fair scheduling. What problems does it address?
T.C.: Say you’re working on the assembly line and it’s 15 minutes before you’re off shift, and your supervisor comes up to you and says, “You’re going to work another eight hours. And if you don’t work another eight hours, you’ll be fired.”
Or, you’ve got your child care taken care of, you come to work, and they say, “We don’t need you today.”
Now up until the ’90s, if they canceled your shift, they had to pay you for four hours, but they changed that. So you can go do a shift at McDonald’s or wherever, and they can send you home without pay. That’s not right, because again, if you have the mindset that you are investing your time, that’s not respectful and it puts a huge burden on the worker, especially workers with families.
I’ll never forget, when we were meeting with this group of workers that we organized, there was a woman in her mid 60s, and she did not speak English and she brought her granddaughter to translate. We were talking about scheduling, and she said, “My grandmother is a very religious person, and because of the way they schedule in this facility, she hasn’t been able to go to church for three years.”
It’s a really important issue.
E.G.: In the past, you’ve considered running for mayor of Portland on a jobs-creation platform. What advice would you give the city and our new mayor in terms of creating jobs that would match the skills of workers who already live here?
T.C.: I think it’s important for the city of Portland, as sort of the trendsetter for the metro area, to create jobs that provide opportunities, not only for the folks who live in Portland, but for displaced Portlanders who have been forced outside the city – forced out to areas that have less benefits, less resources, less transportation opportunities.
Portland has to come up with an economic strategy.
If we can create broad coalitions, working with low-income folks, organizations that represent communities of color and come up with a comprehensive agenda that’s a job creator, for example, infrastructure – you drove over here and maybe you hit Powell at the right time of day and maybe you didn’t, but we have a real transportation problem.
Can we create infrastructure for the city of Portland, where we bring people in, where everybody has a stake in the game? Where we create training programs for low-wage workers who may need some help getting the minimum skills to get into an apprenticeship program?
Can we work with developers or business owners that are going to bring jobs into the city in a way that benefits everybody, not just the CEO? I believe there are ways to do that.
In the next 20 years, I think the city of Portland could grow to over 800,000 people. We have to create jobs and the infrastructure to make Portland competitive, and make sure there’s health care and all the services that they need.
E.G.: Have you thought about what kinds of green jobs investments you would like to see made in Salem next session?
T.C.: I think focusing on a more comprehensive view of solar and how we might use that, being smart about our power grids, and how we update them, because talking to my building trades and, specifically, the electricians union, there needs to be a lot of work there.
Looking at Boardman, and we’re phasing out the coal fire plant there. What are you going to put in its place that might be green? I went to Boardman and listened to the testimony on the coal fire plant. I was struck by what an economic driver the plant was for the community. You are talking, like, 100 jobs – which would be tens of thousands of jobs in Portland. What kind of industry can we bring in there that is going to put those local people to work?