SALEM — 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 (reprinted below), 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.
As a result of the letter, “I’m much more cautious” in talking about the possible ramifications of unionization, said Zee Koza, board president of Eastern Oregon Support Services Brokerage. Several other people involved in the care of people with developmental disabilities said they did not want to speak on the record for fear of affecting legislative support for their programs.
In his letter, which was sent last December and obtained by The Oregonian this week, Devlin said it was a “misuse of public funds to participate in efforts meant to dissuade support service workers from exercising their collective bargaining rights. Even mildly worded communications against collective bargaining will carry disproportionate weight because of your role in providing services.”
Devlin referred to his budget position and added: “If support service workers choose to form a union, I believe they will be able to significantly strengthen our collective ability to preserve funding and enhance services.”
Devlin said he decided to send the letter after hearing that some workers were being told that joining a union “might diminish their opportunities for employment in the future” and that he didn’t want anyone “thwarting” a worker’s collective bargaining rights.
Devlin insists he wasn’t trying to tilt the playing field in favor of the union and that he wasn’t trying to gag the brokerages.
Margaret Theisen, who heads a Eugene brokerage and is president of a statewide association representing them, said she was not aware of any workers being told that unionization would threaten their employment. She said the big question was whether increased costs for a union workforce would reduce the services that could be provided to clients.