A Union Places Its Leader on Leave Amid Challenging Times for Labor

Stacy Chamberlain has led Oregon AFSCME since 2018.

Union Picnic (Wesley Lapointe)

By a couple of key measures, the 2023 Oregon legislative session ended well for organized labor. The state budget includes substantial raises for public employees, and the Democratic majorities in both chambers studiously avoided curtailing the unlimited campaign contributions at the root of union power.

But behind the scenes, things are less rosy.

Earlier this month, the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Council 75 placed its executive director, Stacy Chamberlain, on paid administrative leave from the $181,000 position she’s held since 2018. (Chamberlain would not comment.)

“The Oregon AFSCME Council Executive Committee received a formal complaint from Oregon AFSCME staff on Wednesday, June 14,” says union spokesman David Kreisman.

He declined to give further details about the complaint, explaining, “As an employer, we take the issue of due process seriously and want to model the behavior we expect to see from our employers.” Nonetheless, WW has learned the letter takes issue with Chamberlain’s treatment of subordinates and her management style.

For observers who recall how Chamberlain’s predecessors, Ken Allen and Cecil Tibbetts, each ran AFSCME for a dozen years without brooking opposition, Chamberlain’s suspension is an example of how unsettled things are as organized labor seeks to retain its power amid changing organizational dynamics and hostility from the right.

Mary Botkin, a retired longtime AFSCME political director and lobbyist, says she was alarmed after speaking to Chamberlain about her suspension.

“I called the national and said, ‘Council 75 is circling the drain,’” Botkin says. “Somebody needs to get out here.”

Another reason Chamberlain’s troops are restless: On June 15, AFSCME employees vacated the union’s Portland headquarters at 6025 E Burnside St. The bright green building (AFSCME’s trademark color) served as a citadel of labor since its purchase in 2005. But now, like many Portlanders, AFSCME is without a home of its own. For some, it’s a sign of poor management that AFSCME sold its building without securing a new location. (It got $1.775 million for the property, which was debt-free.)

“I think people are concerned about where AFSCME goes from here and how do they maintain their identity,” Botkin says.

Kreisman says the union outgrew its longtime headquarters and couldn’t find a suitable replacement: “Ultimately, we decided to lease space from SEIU 503 for the next 18 months, while we continue our search for a permanent space we can call our own.”

The loss of its director and its building in the same month is a bitter pill for the state’s third-largest public employee union, trailing only its new landlord, Service Employees International Union, and the Oregon Education Association.

Chamberlain’s difficulties are noteworthy, not just because of her position in labor circles—she’s the first woman to lead Oregon AFSCME and the daughter of former Portland firefighters’ union and statewide AFL-CIO boss Tom Chamberlain—but because it comes at a delicate time for labor.

AFSCME represents a wide range of workers, from prison corrections officers to Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Control Commission employees to frontline workers at many metro-area nonprofits.

It has a big presence locally—it is the largest union at Oregon Health & Science University, Multnomah County and the city of Portland—but its statewide numbers have slipped since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2018 ruling in Janus v. AFSCME. In that case, the court found that public employee unions could no longer compel employees to pay dues.

That gave members who didn’t like unions’ progressive politics permission to stop paying, pressuring both membership and finances.

Unions in Oregon and across the country saw membership drop sharply post-Janus. Nationally, according to a June 23 report issued by the Freedom Foundation, an anti-union nonprofit, public sector unions have lost 734,000 members—about 10% of their total.

In Oregon, AFSCME Council 75 lost 12.4% in the first year after Janus, according to filings with the federal Department of Labor. Since that initial drop, AFSCME has held steady, offsetting losses with organizing drives at nonprofits such as Lines for Life and Outside In.

Kreisman says Janus had nothing to do with AFSCME selling its Portland building. With its recent organizing successes in the metro area, filings show, the union is actually faring somewhat better than its larger ally, SEIU Local 503.

That union, which represents a variety of public sector and home health care workers, has seen bigger losses, dropping from 58,384 members in 2017, the last year before Janus, to 45,038 in 2022, according to federal filings—a decline of about 23%.

SEIU 503 executive director Melissa Unger notes the decline happened in the first year and that membership has held steady since then.

“Our numbers fluctuate,” Unger says, “but the reality is, we are out there every day fighting for fair contracts, and our members are highly engaged.” (An early June rally in Salem was the group’s largest ever, she points out, and her members will be back in the capital picketing June 28 to express displeasure with the size of raises they got from lawmakers.)

Like AFSCME, SEIU is also selling real estate—in its case, the headquarters building it has owned in the capital since 1990 at 1730 Commercial Street SE.

“We’ve outgrown it,” Unger says. Although the Janus decision did hurt, she says, SEIU has added tens of thousands of home health care workers in the past 20 years. And unlike AFSMCE, SEIU also bought a new building.

Unger says she knows the forces that took the Janus case to the Supreme Court will continue to look for ways to weaken organized labor. “We continue to adjust and learn,” she says.

Jason Dudash, the Northwest director for the Freedom Foundation, says declines in membership reflect a diversity of thought and interests among union members.

“The Janus decision gave public employees a choice,” Dudash says. “Thousands of Oregonians are choosing to opt out of union membership because union leaders are wildly out of touch with their working members.”

One bonus for unions: Despite more than a decade of talk about campaign finance reform and Gov. Tina Kotek’s pledge to lead the charge, it stalled in Salem this session.

The ability to write big checks and mobilize members keeps public employee unions influential in Oregon. Post-Janus, both AFSCME and SEIU have contributed heavily to Democratic candidates, including Kotek.

Unger wants limits on large individual donors while allowing small-donor political action committees to maintain their activity. She notes that Phil Knight wrote a $2 million check to a legislative PAC just last month and gave far more last year. Unger says individual megadonors are completely different from union members who write modest checks.

“We’re 11,000 people giving small contributions to our PAC,” Unger says. “We want to keep those small donors engaged.”

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