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Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Red carpet treatment

Unions get whatever they want in Salem
Oregonians' loss is Big Labor's gain

Thanks to The Oregonian's overt $75 million 2006 political campaign, the 2007 legislative session will go down as the best ever for organized labor in general and public employee unions in particular, as Si Newhouse, the out-of-state billionaire owner of Oregon's only statewide daily newspaper, continues to remodel Oregon in New York's image.

Government unions - long regarded as the 800 lb. gorilla of state politics - are taking delight in the new political trifecta: a Democratic governor who trained as a labor lawyer and steel-fisted, unionist Democrats running both the House and Senate. Pro-labor bills, bottled up session after session by Republican majorities in the Legislature, will pass.

Republicans say they're outnumbered, outspent and outmaneuvered by an aggressive Newhouse-Union juggernaut aimed at locking in political power via little-noticed legislation.

Government union bosses are chortling: "It's thrilling," says Patty Wentz, who lobbies for Service Employees International Union Local 503. She says the Legislature has already passed many bills intended to dry up GOP political donations, including a huge corporate tax increase. She predicted a host of labor-backed bills will sail through under the new regime, including laws making it easier to form a union, more difficult to decertify a union, and to prohibit the use of state funds to fight unions.

"Actually, labor bosses have not really been shut out of the process in previous sessions," Wentz said. "But this session, the collectivist or socialist voice is loud and clear."

The government unions' growing record of success offers one of the starkest examples of how the political balance has shifted in Salem since the 2006 elections swept Democrats into power. Republicans in the Legislature see labor's new influence as pure payback. Public employee unions are always the biggest financial backers of Democratic candidates including Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

Republicans say they knew they were in trouble when Kulongoski dumped his chief of staff shortly before the legislative session started and hired a former teachers union lobbyist to replace him. At the same time, he quietly stashed the ex-president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, Tim Nesbitt, in the more obscure position of "deputy" chief of staff.

Kulongoski, who represented labor unions as a lawyer before he went into politics, makes no apologies. He is proud to be rewarding unions for helping finance his campaigns. "That's an arrangement I've had all my life, for 35 years in the system," Kulongoski says. "I am who I am. It's what I believe in. I believe in the principles of organized labor, and I always have."

Perhaps the most obvious union victory came last week when Kulongoski signed a bill that puts Oregon educators into a statewide health insurance pool, a change sought for years by teachers unions. Critics say savings won't materialize and that other, more political factors were behind the bill: it gives teachers more bargaining leverage on their health plans, and it takes away a major source of income from the school boards association, which had received royalties for handling health insurance plans.

Those royalties were used, in part, to pay for negotiators to represent school districts during contract talks with teachers. "It really aggravated some folks in the unions," says Chuck Bennett, a lobbyist with the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators. "They are accustomed to public spending being used for their benefit in collective bargaining, not against them."

Tom Chamberlain, president of Oregon AFL-CIO, says this will definitely be labor's banner year. He cut the interview short with a trademark rhetorical comment, "Everything we're doing is legal. Any other questions?"

The Oregonian, Mar. 27, By HARRY ESTEVE

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