There were politicos aplenty at the 2019 Labor Day picnic, an Oregon tradition that offers a stageful of electeds a chance to proselytize before the union rank-and-file at Oaks Amusement Park.
But after a spat involving lawmaker-approved cuts to the Public Employees Retirement System, many state officials found themselves in an uncomfortable position this year: the audience.
As payback for the cuts, Gov. Kate Brown — and most of the Democratic supermajority in the Oregon House and Senate — were not allowed to perform their stump speeches during the NW Oregon Labor Council's annual event on Monday, Sept. 2.
"The PERS vote was a vote we needed to do to pass the Student Success Act," defended state Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Northeast Portland, referring to the law that will boost public school funding by $1 billion a year.
"The (union) organization felt it was important to send a message to their members," he continued. "I wish it was not so."
Some, including Dembrow and Rep. Carla Piluso, D-Gresham, appeared merely as faces in the crowd. Others were absent entirely. For the lawmakers whose votes kept them in workers' good graces, however, there was more space in the spotlight to go around.
First term state Rep. Rachel Prusak, whose district covers Tualatin and West Linn, joked that the event was like church, with everyone standing up, sitting down and applauding in unison.
Rep. Diego Hernandez, D-East Portland, said he had been pressured to vote differently by people who reminded Hernandez that he had never been in a union. But the lawmaker, who said his mom continues to work as a house cleaner, was unswayed.
"Workers rights, that is a black-and-white issue," Hernandez said. "I'm going to keep voting my values."
In contrast to all four of Portland's commissioners, Mayor Ted Wheeler skipped the day of speeches. At least two people who want his job didn't.
Ozzie Gonzalez, an architect who sits on the TriMet board of directors, said he brought to the table the ability to navigate "a lot of different parts of our community in the work I do every day," ranging from solving working class challenges to the c-suite.
Sarah Iannarone, an educator running a publicly funded campaign, said Portlanders should vote for her as a small business founder who rides the bus — rather than the current mayor "who is much more interested in forwarding the interests of the Portland Business Alliance."
Many officeholders from Metro Council and the Multnomah and Clackamas county commissions also spoke, as well as the state's labor commissioner, attorney general and treasurer. During a tour, U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden donned an apron and slapped cheddar on the griddle, loudly proclaiming "UFCW brings the big cheese!"
Despite the fuss over who was allowed to say what, it's likely that many attendees didn't notice anything different this year.
Shannon, with Local 1503, was excited to shake the hand of Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, but after learning about the speaking ban, the unionized carpenter said they didn't support "across the board" exclusion for politicians.
"People have lost their lives fighting for our labor rights," Shannon said. "It's a day of celebration of blood, sweat and tears."
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