State Senators Tries to Silence Critics of Union Organizing Drive

Jeff Mapes in The Oregonian:

At the behest of Service Employees International Union, Oregon Senate budget chief Richard Devlin sought to stifle criticism of an organizing drive that added more than 7,700 workers to the union’s membership and turned it into the largest in the state.

During a drive to organize workers who help care for developmentally disabled Oregonians, Tualatin Democrat wrote a letter to officials who help employ the workers, warning them not to say anything even “mildly” critical of unionization. He also suggested that a successful union drive would help boost legislative support for services for Oregonians with developmental disabilities. .

Several officials who received the letter said it appeared Devlin tried to tip the scales in favor of the union’s expansion. Devlin said that wasn’t his intent.

Nevertheless, Devlin’s letter illustrates how closely the powerful public employee unions and supportive politicians work with each other behind the scenes. In the end, SEIU won its organizing fight. As a result, the union has now passed the Oregon Education Association to become the largest union in the state, with 60,000 members.

SEIU financially backed Devlin’s reelection last year and has been a key supporter of the Democratic legislative leadership. The union continues to work with the Legislature to expand its membership. Union lobbyists are trying to push through legislation allowing them to organize an entirely new category of community health workers expected to be created this year as part of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s drive to reduce health-care costs.

The organizing drive for workers who help care for the developmentally disabled was particularly sensitive — and unusual. Several brokerages, most of them nonprofits, help people with disabilities such as cerebral palsy or autism get the services they need to stay out of institutions and live as independently as possible. Most of the caregivers paid by the state through the brokerages are actually family members of the clients, who are technically the employers.

Devlin’s letter, which he sent to the brokerages, came as a surprise. While many officials said they had concerns about how unionization would affect their clients, they had not mounted any major campaign against it.

“When I read it, it sounded threatening,” said Barb Charette, executive director of the Southern Oregon Regional Brokerage. She said Devlin’s letter made it clear that he had a powerful position over the state budget and left the impression their funding could be affected if they weren’t careful about what they said about unionization.

Read the whole thing here.


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