Many activist groups may find their members fall into one school of thought or another, but few organizations represent such varying ideologies among their membership as unions.
Now, as the two outer edges of the political spectrum square off in Oregon, leaders of several local labor organizations are taking a stand against the vitriol that’s been echoing from fringe factions of the far right.
Since November, Portland-based local unions representing painters, carpenters and stagehands have all passed strongly worded resolutions stating their plans to mobilize against racist and fascist hate groups, with several of their counterparts around the Pacific Northwest following suit.
The Oregon AFL-CIO also passed a resolution to stand against hate incidents, and it set up a hotline for workers to call if they experience hate or discrimination in the workplace.
Local labor groups have become a regular presence at area immigrant rights rallies and are gearing up to march alongside immigrant workers on May 1. In Salem, immigrant rights organization Causa and Oregon School Employees Association are co-presenting Salem’s main May Day event, and others are planning events in Portland.
A recent resurgence of hate incidents in Oregon, along with the history of unions’ organizing against white supremacists, is in part why it’s the responsibility of the labor movement to take a stand against hate today, union representatives told Street Roots.
The Industrial Workers of the World in Seattle has also released a statement saying it will organize “against the KKK and other white supremacist organizations, to stand with other unions and other community allies, and to quickly mobilize when these forces present a threat.”
Union opposition’s racist roots
Most of these unions pointed to the connection between white supremacy and the origin of anti-union “right to work” laws in their resolutions, saying racist organizations pose a direct threat to union members and the labor movement as a whole, and always have.
“There certainly were some people who were white supremacist, and very much connected to that ideology, that were supportive of ‘right to work,’” said Bob Bussel, labor history professor and director of University of Oregon’s Labor Education and Research Center. Right-to-work laws prohibit unions from automatically collecting dues from member workers.
“The basic idea of right-to-work laws were to make unions weak,” he said. “In the Southern United States, unions were viewed as a direct threat to systems and structures of white supremacy because they threatened to organize workers – in some cases interracially – and they threatened to drive a wedge through the divide-and-conquer tactics that employers and their allies used. It’s no accident a number of the states that enacted right-to-work laws following World War II were in the Southern United States, although not just there.”
In a recent article for the Labor and Working Class History Association, Michael Pierce, a University of Arkansas associate professor, examined the connection among the origins of right-to-work laws, anti-Semitism and Jim Crow.
As states continue to contemplate right-to-work laws, he argued, it’s worth remembering how they originated – and it was in states where black people could not vote and political power was concentrated in the hands of the elite.
“Right-to-work laws sought to make it stay that way, to deprive the least powerful of a voice, and to make sure that workers remained divided along racial lines,” Pierce wrote in the article. “The current push for Right-to-Work in Kentucky and Missouri (along with the fueling of nativism) does something similar – it is an attempt to persuade white working people that unions and racialized others are more responsible for their plight than the choices made by capital.”
Today, more than half of U.S. states have right-to-work laws. Proponents say these laws are about workers’ right to choose whether they want to pay dues. Union representatives say they are meant to hurt unions by attacking their funding source, and according to the AFL-CIO, workers in states with these laws have lower wages and are less likely to have employer-provided insurance.
Despite repeated attempts, no state on the West Coast has passed right-to-work legislation.
Corporate power and party politics
These days, it’s corporate forces, not white supremacists, that are pushing the right-to-work agenda, said Marcus Widener, labor history expert and professor emeritus at the University of Oregon.
“There’s a huge effort to spread right-to-work laws around the country by organizations like ALEC, who are very much aligned with the conservative Republicans,” he said.
ALEC, the American Legislative Exchange Council, is a conservative organization that writes corporate-funded legislation for lawmakers to introduce in Congress and state legislatures.
There are questions, however, around what ratio of “lunatic fringe right” and traditional conservatives compose the Trump administration, Widener said.
“There would appear to be some rubbing of the shoulders of these organizations right now,” he said.
Ben Basom, spokesperson for the Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters, said the carpenters’ recent anti-hate resolution is not about party politics.
“We are a nonpartisan organization. We’re not tied at the hip to the Democrats; we do support Republicans,” he said. “We are a diverse organization made up of all races, nationalities and sexual orientations, and it’s at our core principles to stand up for our membership.”
Hate groups and Patriots
While it’s uncertain whether the number of white supremacists in Oregon is increasing, a couple of groups, one a racist skinhead group and the other a white nationalist group, popped up in Oregon for the first time this past year, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. But much of the organizing around xenophobic and nativist ideologies has been in rural parts of the state.
Oregon is also home to 28 extreme anti-government Patriot groups, according to the law center; only Virginia, Texas and California host more of these groups than Oregon. They’re concentrated along the west and central regions of Oregon, and nationwide, about a quarter of these Patriot groups are militias.
Members of one listed group, the “Three Percenters,” clashed with anti-Trump activists at a pro-Trump rally in Salem on March 25. One man, who was hiding his face behind a yellow and black mask, verbally attacked and threatened Portland activist Cameron Whitten, who is black and was leading a counter protest live-streamed on social media.
According to an anonymous post recently uploaded to an anarchist and antifa, or anti-fascist, Web platform, the attacker is allegedly a Three Percenter, and so were many of the other participants who were there to support Trump.
Street Roots was able to independently verify that there were Three Percenters at this rally who were engaged in shouting matches with the counter-protesters.
According to “Up in Arms: A Guide to Oregon’s Patriot Movement,” the Three Percenters (often shortened to III%), along with the Oath Keepers, participate in vigilante border militias, spread anti-Muslim rhetoric and “tend to be more aggressive and violent than other Patriot movement groups.”
Rural Organizing Project and Political Research Associations released the Oregon guide in 2016. It reports that there are thousands of Patriot activists in Oregon and that the Three Percenters surfaced shortly after the 2008 election of Barack Obama.
According to SPLC, III% United Patriots and American Patriots III% are both a statewide presence in Oregon, and the Oath Keepers are present in 10 counties, including Washington, Columbia, Lane and Marion.
FURTHER READING: How the Patriot movement is organizing throughout rural Oregon
“This election has empowered people to become more brazen,” said Basom, of Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters. He said he’s keeping the lines of communication open with other unions so that “when and if” hate groups initiate actions in Portland, they will be ready.
“We need to take proactive steps,” Basom said.
Part of how the resolution materializes will likely be through education. Basom said this would take the form of teaching the regional council’s 20,000 members, some who live in Oregon’s rural areas, about the history of the labor and civil rights movements working together. But most importantly, it’s about teaching members how fighting for union standards for all workers helps keep those standards up for everybody, he said.
Differences in opinion among membership of the regional carpenters union, is evident on its Facebook page.
Numerous union carpenters voiced dissent below a post of photos from a protest outside the Oregon GOP’s Freedom Rally at the Oregon Convention Center on Feb. 25, while many other commenters voiced their support. That day, the regional council “stood up for the dignity of immigrant workers,” according to the post’s author.
“I have a hard time seeing why we support the very labor force that takes our jobs and drives down wages in our industry,” one commenter wrote. “Too many illegal aliens inside our unions already,” another wrote. “Today I’m embarrassed to say I’m a Union carpenter,” another commenter wrote.
But as labor history experts and union leaders argue, these attitudes are a result of union busting efforts to pit workers against one another – which deflects attention from the likelihood that low wages and poor working conditions are the fault of the employer rather than other workers.
The Pacific Northwest Regional Council of Carpenters’ resolution stated, “If the U.S. labor movement is to rebuild its strength during this period of crisis of racist organizing and attacks, it must take up the struggle against white supremacy/white nationalism, not as an abstract debate, but as part of its social, political, and organizing agenda.”
The resolutions passed by local carpenters and painters unions show a “sea change” has taken place in some of the more traditionally conservative unions, said Widener, who taught at UO’s Labor Education and Research Center before retiring in 2012.
“When I see a resolution like this,” Widener said of the carpenters’ statement, “I think: Wow, that’s a lot of progress! Because the construction unions have a history of being more conservative than the industrial unions or the public employee unions, so I think that this marks a transition for them.”
Wyatt McMinn, vice president of the International Union of Painters and Allied Trades Local Union No. 10, believes decisive action is needed from the labor movement. He said his local union has created an Anti-Racist Mobilization Committee.
“We have a lot of Latino brothers and sisters,” he said of his union’s membership. “We figured it was important to take action.”
Becca Lewis is a member of International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local 28, which represents about 200 workers in Portland.
“The resolution is important to my union,” she said, “because it gives us the framework to mobilize using our power as workers against the KKK and other white supremacist groups. It can also act as an example to other unions who want to confront fascists.”
Some members of the carpenters union showed up to help on March 13 when Southeast Portlanders woke up to swastikas painted all over property along 33rd Avenue. Basom said regional union membership also showed up in Redmond, Wash., to help repair a mosque’s sign that was vandalized in November. When the same sign was re-vandalized in December, they showed up again.
His union has been working to organize immigrant workers for some time, as Street Roots reported in October.
But lately, said Juan Sanchez, the union representative leading that effort, the union has also been participating in a lot of marches and immigrant rights rallies – including a recent rally asking the city not to cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
The Portland office issued a letter urging other carpentry locals to pass similar anti-hate resolutions, Basom said, and carpenters in Eugene and Renton, Wash., have already followed suit.
Email staff reporter Emily Green at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @GreenWrites.
IN THE NEWS: Hate group mouthpiece met with protest in Salem
Oregon AFL-CIO has set up a hotline for workers who have experienced or witnessed a hate incident at work. Call 503-412-8484 to report an incident, or visit oraflcio.org/hotline to fill out an online form. You do not have to be a member of a union to use this hotline.
You can also confidentially report discrimination and hate-motivated incidents in the workplace to Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industries Civil Rights Division. Call 971-673-0764, or 971-673-2818 for Spanish, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Fact sheet: Oregon hate groups
What we learned from Southern Poverty Law Center data:
- In 2016, Wolves of Vinland (white nationalist), American Front (racist skinhead) and Black Riders Liberation Party (black separatist) all surfaced in Oregon for the first time.
- Also new to the list was Portland’s Soleilmoon Recordings (hate music), which is a music label that’s been operating out of Portland since 1987. It got listed for selling and promoting
- neo-Nazi music.
- While Southern Poverty Law Center hasn’t found evidence of the Ku Klux Klan in Oregon since 2011, it reports that an affiliated group surfaced in Vancouver, Wash., in 2016. And, as reported by Willamette Week, a prominent member of the KKK popped up in Lake Oswego on March 11.
- The Northwest Hammerskins (racist skinhead) surfaced in 2016 for the first time in five years.
- The National Socialist Movement (neo-Nazi) has been present in Oregon steadily since 2004.
- The National Prayer Network (evangelical, anti-Semitic) in Clackamas has been around for 10 years.
- Oregon somewhat follows national trends, which show hate groups have been steadily increasing since 1999. Nationally, hate groups peaked in 2011 with 1,018 active hate groups, then dropped to 784 in 2014, and are now on the rise again, with 917 last year.
Extreme anti-government groups
- Oregon had 28 active extreme anti-government groups in 2016.
- Only Virginia, with 33, and Texas and California, both with 32, had more.
- Florida also had 28.
- “Generally, such groups define themselves as opposed to the ‘New World Order,’ engage in groundless conspiracy theorizing, or advocate or adhere to extreme antigovernment doctrines,” according to Southern Poverty Law Center. They are not necessarily racist or criminal.
- There are 623 of these groups nationwide, and 165 of them, including a handful in Oregon, are militias.