10/9/07

Unions stage protest against union-friendly Gov.

About 70 union members attending a statewide AFL-CIO convention boycotted a speech by Oregon Democrat Gov. Ted Kulongoski on Monday, exposing a deep new rift in the governor's sometimes rocky relationship with public employees. The workers, members of American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, said they were protesting Kulongoski's agreement to give large pay increases to thousands of state managers, while negotiating much smaller raises for rank-and-file employees.

They said they chose to walk out instead of waving banners or disrupting Kulongoski's speech at the state's biggest labor convention. About 400 have signed up for the multi-day gathering. "Our members are angry," said AFSCME Executive Director Ken Allen. "The members wanted to let the administration know how seriously we view this." AFSCME represents about 22,000 public employees statewide.

Kulongoski said he understands the union's concerns but has no regrets or second thoughts about the pay increases for managers. He said he doesn't see a repeat of the soured relations that developed after his first term, when he helped drive an overhaul of public employee pensions. That led a number of unions to support Kulongoski's challengers during the 2006 primary. When Kulongoski won the primary however, unions became his biggest financial backer in the general election.

"I don't think I'm on the outs with state workers," Kulongoski said as he left the Seaside Convention Center. "It's nothing that good friends can't resolve."

The state has about 60 department heads who will get raises of 21 percent to 24 percent over the next two years. Nearly 4,800 state managers will see their salaries rise 11 percent to 16 percent.

Public union workers negotiated pay raises that total a little more than 6 percent for the same period.

All state employees took a two-year pay freeze during the economic downturn of the governor's first term.

Allen said he met with Kulongoski and his staff before the contracts were set and was told that 6 percent was all the state could afford. He told that to his members, he said. "It's my integrity that's on the line."

He said the fallout already has started. Unionized workers in the state Department of Environmental Quality refused to ratify their contract settlement. Another group that works as support staff in state prisons has started talking about a strike, Allen said.

The walkout put a brief damper on what largely has been a celebratory convention. AFL-CIO President Tom Chamberlain lauded Kulongoski as one of the most pro-labor governors in the nation. He said labor had one of its best legislative sessions in decades this year, and he thanked the governor for his support.

"Whenever we went to the governor's office, whenever we asked for help, he was there," Chamberlain said. On the AFSCME walkout, Chamberlain said he expects Allen and Kulongoski to work out a solution.

The difference between the labor and management pay raises is "unfortunate," Chamberlain said. "But if I had to pick two people to work it out, these would be the two people."

In his speech, Kulongoski credited unions for keeping the U.S. middle class intact.

"You, union members of the AFL-CIO, are the spokespersons for all working families -- union and non union -- in this great state," Kulongoski said.

(oregonlive.com)

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