Labor organizes to elect council members.

Labor leader Laurie Wimmer on the coordinated effort to promote union-friendly council reps.

Maja Viklands Harris Avatar
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With fourteen empty seats beckoning at City Hall, Portland is abuzz with political strategizing. Perhaps no organizer has taken a more proactive role in that effort than Laurie Wimmer, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the NW Oregon Labor Council.

Wimmer, who jokingly refers to herself as “the Mother Hen of Labor,” is the chief coordinator of a labor-led coalition that will release its endorsement slate for city council later this spring.

So far, Wimmer has vetted over forty candidates, all eager for the momentum that often comes with a union nod. What is she looking for? Not surprisingly, her description of the ideal candidate sounds a lot like a union leader: an experienced negotiator who can drum up support and strike a bargain.

Here’s what she had to say.

Who’s behind the labor candidate table? 

We’re an organized group of diverse stakeholders consisting primarily of labor unions, but we’re also collaborating with organizations representing communities of color, social justice nonprofits, and some progressive businesses. The NW Oregon Labor Council is the convener of the table. 

What prompted this effort? 

We see a historic opportunity for the city to reshape itself and to reshape representation for working families. The underlying ill of so many symptoms, such as homelessness, the affordable housing crisis, addiction, and our declining public safety and livability, boils down to economic inequality.

When workers thrive, the community thrives. Voters understand that. An AFL-CIO poll from 2023 showed that 72% of voters support unions. When voters see our coalition supporting top-tier candidates, they know we’re identifying leaders who are going to work to bridge the wealth and wage gaps.

What can you tell us about your key issues?

We care about the same issues that all Portlanders care about. We expect the new city council to bring experience and strong leadership qualities to address the complex issues that have shifted Portland from one of the most livable cities in the nation to one facing significant challenges.

We care about our unionized city workers and advocate for contracts that use unionized labor and meet the prevailing wage threshold. We support the practice of ensuring that 20% of hours are worked by state-registered apprenticeships. Notably, half of our apprenticeships are held by people of color and nearly half by women.

Workplace safety is another huge issue. That includes workplace practices but also community safety at large. In the past few years, we’ve seen hundreds of workers hurt or killed on the job. One parks employee was hit over the head with his own tools. 

What leadership qualities do you seek in candidates?

We value maturity, experience, and the ability to forge alliances to get things done. We’re looking for candidates with a proven track record of moving beyond ideas to implementation.

Laurie Wimmer, NW Oregon Labor Council Executive Secretary-Treasurer

Does participation at your table require any pledges?

We won’t be asking people to sign on the dotted line, but we’ll certainly have a screening tool. We don’t want people just telling us what we want to hear. 

Since Portland reformed its city government, labor has been among the earliest forces to organize. Why do you think that is?

We recognize that we have a unique opportunity to help Portlanders who are struggling. As labor leaders, we’re used to organizing and playing in the political environment. As the lead entity advocating for economic justice, we stepped forward early to be part of the solution and make sure that we have leaders who understand that those values are the key to healing Portland. 

You’ve met with over forty candidates. Any takeaways?

It’s been a distinct honor and privilege to get to know these folks. I sincerely appreciate their commitment to the community. My favorite part of this process is to educate folks about how to support unions. A lot of people say they’re pro-union, but when you break it down, they don’t have a clue about the critical devices, such as project labor agreements. Some see labor unions as a special interest rather than a community player. But when labor unions raise the lake, they float all boats, not just those of their members. That’s the fundamental why of organized labor. Collective bargaining is the how.

Will the labor table take a position on the mayor’s race?

The jury is still out on that. Certainly, the NW Oregon Labor Council will take a position later this year.

Is there any overlap between your table and other organizations? 

There’s a tendency to view players as opposing entities fighting each other to get their candidates across the finish line. That’s a natural inclination, but it’s not true. Because of the newness of the system and because there’s widespread agreement that leadership chops are the most important value, we have a lot of crossover with other organizations focused on racial justice, housing, or business. We know the traditional ways of divvying up labor versus business, or this organization versus that organization, aren’t going to get us to where we want to be. In the end, we’re all looking for the same common denominator – and that’s excellence.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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