Oregon Unions Are Fielding Their Own Candidates for Public Office

Sara Ryan January 18, 2017

Rep. Rob Nosse, an Oregon Nurses representative who won a House seat in 2014, is a graduate of the Oregon Labor Candidate School. (Benjamin Kerensa/ Flickr)

This arti­cle was first post­ed by Labor Notes.

Elec­tion night 2016 was bit­ter­sweet for me. I spent most of the day with Ore­gon leg­isla­tive can­di­date Tere­sa Alon­so Leon, a Ser­vice Employ­ees (SEIU) member.

Alon­so Leon worked for the state as a high school equiv­a­len­cy and GED admin­is­tra­tor, help­ing stu­dents find their paths to careers, col­lege, and job skills train­ing pro­grams. I had helped to recruit and train her through the Ore­gon Labor Can­di­date School, which offers union mem­bers the train­ing and sup­port to run for pub­lic office.

She was run­ning for leg­is­la­ture to fight for a bet­ter pub­lic edu­ca­tion sys­tem, one that sup­ports teach­ers and clas­si­fied employ­ees. She her­self did not com­plete high school, but went on to get her GED and mas­ter’s in pub­lic admin­is­tra­tion — so she knows first­hand how strong schools and great edu­ca­tors can help immi­grants like her.

And she won, just about at the same time that Sec­re­tary Hillary Clin­ton con­ced­ed to Don­ald Trump. There were tears of joy and pain, all mixed together.

Alon­so Leon, already a rep­re­sen­ta­tive on her city coun­cil in Wood­burn — where over half the pop­u­la­tion is Lati­no or mixed-race — will be Oregon’s first immi­grant Lati­na state representative.

Friend­ly faces

A coali­tion of pub­lic- and pri­vate-sec­tor unions cre­at­ed the Ore­gon Labor Can­di­date School in 2012. It’s an inde­pen­dent non­prof­it, with a board of staffers and offi­cers from unions rep­re­sent­ing nurs­es, fire­fight­ers, teach­ers, school bus dri­vers, elec­tri­cians and oth­er build­ing trades, pub­lic employ­ees, direct care providers, and professors.

Our goal is to build a bench of can­di­dates who will stand up and fight. We want lead­ers through­out Ore­gon who will push for­ward poli­cies like a $15 min­i­mum wage, paid time off for mater­ni­ty and elder care, paid sick days, strong labor agree­ments with devel­op­ers, health care avail­able to every­one, and so much more.

Plus, when union con­tracts come up for nego­ti­a­tion, it’s essen­tial to have mem­bers on local city coun­cils and school boards who can speak up for work­ers. Hav­ing a fire­fight­er on a school board and a teacher on a fire board ben­e­fits all pub­lic-sec­tor employees.

Build­ing trades work­ers ben­e­fit too, when labor-friend­ly offi­cials sup­port con­struct­ing pub­lic build­ings with union labor.

The school is just a few years old, but already this leg­isla­tive ses­sion we will have three grad­u­ates serv­ing in the Ore­gon House. We also have grad­u­ates on city coun­cils, school boards, and spe­cial dis­trict boards around the state.

To name a few: Nurse Sheri Mal­strom won her House seat unop­posed, after two years of hard work to build sup­port. Non­prof­it employ­ee Sal­ly Cook took out an anti-labor incum­bent last spring for the Salem city council.

Head Start teacher Susan Hardy, teacher Erick Flo­res, and school secu­ri­ty guard Fran­cis­co Acos­ta serve on school boards. Michael Sonnleit­ner, with the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers, won a tough race for the Port­land Com­mu­ni­ty Col­lege board by knock­ing on doors and orga­niz­ing volunteers.

Mak­ing wins possible

The school has one full-time staffer, and is fund­ed almost entire­ly by its part­ner unions. Stu­dents raise 10 per­cent of the bud­get as part of their cur­ricu­lum on fundrais­ing. We offer our train­ing and sup­port to union mem­bers who want to cre­ate poli­cies that will improve the lives of work­ers in our state.

There’s not always 100 per­cent agree­ment on which leg­isla­tive poli­cies to sup­port, and our can­di­dates don’t always go on to win the endorse­ments of all the part­ner unions. But by spend­ing time with class­mates from oth­er unions, par­tic­i­pants devel­op a height­ened aware­ness of the val­ues that hold us togeth­er, and of which poli­cies dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions prioritize.

A mem­ber who wish­es to par­tic­i­pate must be backed by some­one in lead­er­ship from their union, usu­al­ly a local pres­i­dent or busi­ness man­ag­er. Appli­cants are vet­ted and inter­viewed by the school’s staff and board, and up to 20 are accept­ed each year.

I can­not imag­ine run­ning suc­cess­ful­ly with­out hav­ing attend­ed the labor cam­paign school,” said Rep. Rob Nosse, an Ore­gon Nurs­es rep­re­sen­ta­tive who won a House seat in 2014. The school gave me impor­tant tips and prac­tice for rais­ing mon­ey. It also helped me to be more pre­pared for the endorse­ment process­es that can­di­dates will go through with our unions and with oth­er organizations.”

While learn­ing the ropes as a fresh­man leg­is­la­tor, Rep. Nosse worked on many sig­nif­i­cant bills. He helped two senior elect­ed offi­cials from labor, Sen. Michael Dem­brow (Teach­ers) and Rep. Paul Holvey (Car­pen­ters) to pass a min­i­mum wage bill. He also car­ried a bill to ban anti-gay con­ver­sion ther­a­py, anoth­er one to phase out Sty­ro­foam con­tain­ers in schools, and a third to improve pre­mi­um rate set­ting for our health care exchange.

Prac­ti­cal skills

Unless they have run for office before, most par­tic­i­pants start off the class not know­ing what they don’t know. Run­ning for office is a huge and per­son­al deci­sion to make, so we give stu­dents time to process it and make sure it’s right for them.

We wrote our own cur­ricu­lum, empha­siz­ing cam­paign basics through a labor lens. The 48-hour course is bro­ken into six class­es over six months, cov­er­ing six themes:

  • Prepar­ing to run
  • Fundrais­ing
  • Vot­er contact
  • Com­mu­ni­ca­tion
  • Endorse­ments
  • Plan­ning

Our train­ers come from a vari­ety of unions and have diverse back­grounds, but all have run cam­paigns and gone through our 10-hour cur­ricu­lum train­ing. The train­ers teach the core mate­r­i­al, and guest speak­ers come in to share their expe­ri­ences as candidates.

Each day focus­es on a theme. The endorse­ments” day, for instance, cov­ers labor pri­or­i­ties and the endorse­ment process, and includes tour­ing a train­ing facil­i­ty for one of our build­ing trades appren­tice­ship programs.

If we do the train­ing right, par­tic­i­pants leave each ses­sion with more ques­tions than they had when they showed up that morn­ing. They start to think through which elect­ed seat makes the most sense for their life, con­sid­er­ing their incomes, job respon­si­bil­i­ties, and per­son­al passions.

They dis­cov­er how much mon­ey past cam­paigns have spent, which seats were appoint­ed, and which ones had tough races. Stu­dents dis­cov­er how much there is to learn about the polit­i­cal land­scapes of their districts.

Besides attend­ing the train­ings, each par­tic­i­pant is required to do read­ings between class­es, fundraise a min­i­mum of $350 for the school, and can­vass with a can­di­date at least once.

Ore­gon Labor Can­di­date School allowed me to have con­fi­dence run­ning for a seat that I was pas­sion­ate about, with lit­tle funds and against big mon­ey,” said Cook, the SEIU mem­ber who joined the Salem City Coun­cil last year. It lev­els the play­ing field for work­ing peo­ple who want to run for local office and rep­re­sent work­ing-class inter­ests in our community.”

A hun­dred blows

We recruit appli­cants at polit­i­cal action com­mit­tee meet­ings, con­ven­tions, board meet­ings, and labor pic­nics. But now that we have a sol­id net­work of 100 alum­ni from 20 unions, our alum­ni are doing our best recruit­ment. Each year we receive more and more appli­ca­tions from peo­ple who want to go through the training.

The 2016 elec­tion was a shock­ing real­i­ty check for many of us, with pro­found­ly dis­ap­point­ing results at the nation­al and state lev­els. But we also know that there will be anoth­er elec­tion in two years, and anoth­er two years after that. In fact, there are elec­tions this spring, and next spring as well.

Although I enjoy can­vass­ing for the cur­rent elec­tion, I’m gen­er­al­ly think­ing two to four years out. I think of the words of the Dan­ish-Amer­i­can social reformer and jour­nal­ist Jacob Riis, who cru­sad­ed against poor liv­ing con­di­tions in New York City ten­e­ments a cen­tu­ry ago:

When noth­ing seems to help, I go and look at a stone­cut­ter ham­mer­ing away at his rock per­haps a hun­dred times with­out as much as a crack show­ing in it. Yet at the hun­dred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it — but all that had gone before.”

Sara Ryan is exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Ore­gon Labor Can­di­date School. You can con­tact her at sara@​oregonlaborcandidateschool.​org.
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