Several union representatives are standing near Lane County Commission Chair Joe Berney. They’re at the July 14 tour of Lane Transit District with Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg and Congressman Peter DeFazio, promoting a trillion dollar infrastructure bill being debated in Congress. It’s the first time that many of the union reps have seen one another since the start of COVID-19.
While I’m introducing myself to them, one of the reps tells me that unions love Berney.
That statement of adoration comes weeks after the Oregon Legislature passed Senate Bill 420, which lays a framework for state and local government agencies to adopt a community benefits bidding protocol. That’s an agreement that a public agency will accept bids only from contractors and businesses that meet a certain criteria such as offering year-round family health benefits and apprenticeship programs for historically excluded populations.
In 2018, Nashville Soccer Holdings and community groups designed a similar “community benefits agreement” to build a Major League Soccer stadium in Nashville, Tennessee. Among the contract benefits that were included to gain the support of the local Nashville community, the developers agreed to build affordable housing, pay stadium workers a living wage and include minority workers.
In Oregon, Berney spearheaded the community benefits journey from idea to actual law. He says he assembled a team of union representatives to lobby Lane County government to adopt it, which involved jumping through legal hurdles. He then authored SB 420, which lays a framework for other local, regional and state agencies to adopt community benefits bidding protocols for public projects, including construction work funded through tax bonds.
Union representatives from the International Association of Sheet Metal Air Rail and Transportation, Local Union No. 16 (SMART); International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, Local 280; and the University of Oregon’s Labor Education Research Center tell Eugene Weekly that the community benefits bidding protocol could lead to a rebirth of the labor movement in Oregon — and maybe throughout the U.S.
Growing the protocol took most of Berney’s first term as Lane County commissioner. His next goal is to expand the county’s community benefits bidding past construction to include more services that Lane County provides with contractors, including custodial and nursing.
“Originally I didn’t intend to run for a second term. My presence is needed to push through this. I truly believe that the conditions are ripe and we’re about to enter a new labor movement in our country’s history,” Berney says. “This will be Oregon’s contribution to the labor movement and workers’ movement and to be more fair and provide more dignity and ability for people to live a life and enter the working class.”
Paying the Dues
Back in May 2018, at a Democratic Party of Lane County results watch party for the primary election, local Democrats were jammed inside a room at Roaring Rapids Pizza Company. After the 10 pm results came in, showing Berney’s increasing lead over then-incumbent Sid Leiken, Springfield City Councilor and Teamster representative Leonard Stoehr introduced the new commissioner-elect to the crowd. During his speech, he brought up rumors among local conservatives that Berney was making secret deals with unions. “So I was wondering, where’s my cut?” Stoehr laughed.
Throughout Berney’s 2018 campaign for the Springfield seat on the Lane County Board of County Commissioners, part of his platform was about investing in the working class of Lane County, which he says included addressing climate change by creating new jobs and having more workforce equity.
“After the campaign I was wrestling with how to move money to local communities, including Springfield, to local business and hiring local workers. I didn’t want to be another bullshit politician,” he says. “So I came up with a way to codify and make a thing of all the values I tried to express in the campaign.”
In 2019, Berney’s first iteration of the community benefits bidding program was tied to the construction of a new Lane County courthouse, a bond that voters shot down. Then called a community benefits agreement, if the bond had passed, the winning bidder of the courthouse would have agreed to not only pay living wages but also offer family health benefits, prioritize diversity and equality in the workplace, incorporate sustainability in the project’s design and construction and utilize apprenticeship programs.
During the campaign for the bond measure, Kail Zuschlag, assistant business manager for the International Brotherhood of Electric Workers, Local 280 and Berney both say the community benefits agreement polled well with voters. In the county’s final poll taken months after the bond failed — out of the 49 percent of participants who knew about the community benefits agreement — 42 percent favored the courthouse if it were built by local contractors.
Nearly a year after the bond measure failed, on Oct. 20, 2020, Lane County commissioners adopted a pilot program for the community benefits program. It requires the county to prioritize contractors that offer on the project a living wage and an employer-paid full-family health coverage plan on projects that exceed $1 million.
“With Berney’s determination, he knew how to get it done and the right folks to talk with,” SMART union organizer Russ Benton says. “He has historically changed the playing field for construction work.”
Not counting large road construction or public works projects, Lane County spokesperson Devon Ashbridge says the county has put out to bid two capital projects that cost more than $1 million. That includes a Parole and Probation renovations project, for which Ashbridge says Bridgeway Contracting, LLC, came in $700,000 less than the recent cost estimate of $5.79 million while also meeting the community benefits bidding criteria.
“We’re trying to lift up the working families of the community,” Zuschlag says. “We really built trust with that Lane County staff. They went out a little bit on a ledge because there was nowhere in state law that said you could specifically do this, but there wasn’t anywhere that said you couldn’t, either.”
He adds that county staff took time to research how to make community benefits bidding happen legally so the county wouldn’t engage in illegal preferential treatment.
Months after the county started its community benefits bidding program, Berney says he authored the bill that state Sen. James Manning would eventually introduce on his behalf.
According to the bill’s language, SB 420 requires a contractor to provide workers with employer-paid family health insurance and participate in an apprenticeship, as well as any other requirements a public agency may require.
“It took two years to get the entire [Lane] County staff to be supportive rather than pushing back because this is institutional change, which is oftentimes resisted,” Berney says. Now that SB 420 is law, he says, “every county, every city, every school district, every water district, every unit of state and local government now cannot say it’s illegal, which is what they’ve been saying.”
Community Benefits Bidding Goes on Tour
On July 14, Gov. Kate Brown signed SB 420 into law. Now Berney and union groups are looking to proselytize community benefits bidding to other agencies, two of which are in Lane County.
“We’re going to have to go city by city, county by county,” Berney says. “The building trades are really going to have to put in their work in this. But we’ve opened a door, created a template and created a structure that’s going to enable that. That means lifting the tides for all boats.”
And Berney says he’ll be involved in talking with other governmental agencies about community benefits bidding. For example, he says, as 2021 Lane County chair, the Association of Oregon Counties invited him to talk with commissioners throughout the state on how to adopt a community benefits bidding protocol. But he clarifies he won’t impose himself.
Berney is currently trying to adopt community benefits bidding at Homes For Good, Lane County’s housing authority that often spends millions of dollars on affordable housing developments. “On the one hand, I’m very supportive of what Homes For Good does,” he says. “On the other hand, Homes For Good is institutionally resisting change, which I understand. It’s natural to push back against doing things differently. It’s a process. They’ll get there. I’ll help them.”
On July 21, Homes For Good began discussion on community benefits bidding. Five of the housing agency’s seven person board are county commissioners. Early in the meeting, Executive Director Jacob Fox discussed the organization’s strategies of increasing diversity, equity and inclusion. In response, Berney said community benefits bidding protocol can be crafted to meet that strategy.
At that meeting, conservative Lane County Commissioner Jay Bozievich said he won’t support Homes For Good adopting community benefits bidding for its projects. It could result in more expensive costs for building affordable homes, he said.
But supporters of community benefits bidding say the programs don’t result in more expensive projects.
“None of this increases the cost of the project. The cost of the project is determined by prevailing wage laws,” says Gordon Lafer, Labor Education Research Center faculty member, University of Oregon professor and a Eugene School District 4J School Board member.
Lafer is one of the school board members who’s pushing for community benefits bidding at 4J, which would be the first school district in Oregon to have such an agreement, he says. Because community benefits bidding protocols can be developed according to the needs of the agency, Lafer says 4J has an opportunity to empower its career technical education system by prioritizing contractors that will have apprenticeship programs with high schoolers.
Lafer says he hopes board members will find ways to develop a strategy to adopt a community benefits bidding program at their upcoming retreat. But it may be too late for a community benefits bidding program to be tied to upcoming construction projects.
Berney says he’s talking with trade unions from Washington, California and Nevada so they can lobby for community benefit bidding programs there.
If public agencies start requiring community benefits bidding programs, taxpayer money could have a multiplier effect throughout communities, Benton says.
“It creates those family wage careers that boost up the economy for the entire community that these projects are taking place in,” Benton says. “The people who are making these family wages are putting their money right back into the communities where they live. It’s direct economic growth.”
Union State of Mind
With Lane County’s pilot program kicked off and Brown’s signature on SB 420, union representatives say Berney has pulled off a game-changing policy that they’ve tried to implement in Oregon in the past. And it could revive the state’s labor movement.
Benton says, in the past, unions and building trades have approached public agencies, asking them to adopt “responsible contractor language.” Rather than public contracts going to the lowest bidder, the unions were just asking public agencies to prioritize local contractors, he adds.
“We asked for simple things like employers pay full family health care with the prevailing wage that the state of Oregon requires,” Benton says. “Our idea was to hire the contractors that pay these benefits. There’s a reason they require them.”
But these requests were often rejected wholly or watered down, he adds.
“When Berney had actually authored the community benefits bidding program and SB 420, he created a game changer,” Benton says.
In 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court’s Janus v. AFSCME changed the organized labor landscape when the 5-4 ruling prohibited unions from collecting mandatory dues from non-members. But since then, union membership has risen. According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, the national union membership rate was 10.8 percent, up .5 percent from 2019. A third of the nation’s union members were in the public sector, and private sector workers — like those in the construction industry — only made up 6.3 percent.
Union representatives tell EW that if construction contractors decide to meet the demands of a community benefits bidding program, it won’t discourage union growth. In fact, Oregon could see more union construction workers.
Benton points to full family health insurance, for example. Nonunion contractors who work on public projects often pay workers the cash to cover health insurance, he says. But if they’re required to provide health insurance in order to bid for public projects, contractors may decide to join a union to make qualifying for public projects with community benefits bidding programs easier.
“We’ve seen it in other jurisdictions, like the San Francisco Bay Area and Seattle,” he adds, “It actually attracts companies to become signatory. They find out that it’s more economical to become a part of our organization than it is to bid against our organization.”
In those areas, nonunion contractors will sometimes pay more for health insurance and retirement than if they were in a union, he says. So if there are more community benefits bidding protocols throughout Oregon, it could lead to union growth here, he adds.
“This is going to be a key element in pushing the labor movement forward,” Benton says. “I really believe this is going to be a huge shot in the arm for labor organizations across the state.”
And even if community benefits bidding programs don’t increase union membership in Oregon, Zuschlag says rising expectations for nonunion workers will benefit the whole industry.
“To be honest, we represent workers in our union but we want to help all in our industry,” he says. “We’re all better off if they get real benefits.”
Berney says now he wants to expand Lane County government’s use of community benefits bidding protocol so all construction projects over $500,000 must go to contractors who pay a living wage, offer full time family health insurance, have apprenticeship programs for underrepresented communities and follow climate friendly practices.
And Berney wants to include all Lane County contracted services, not just construction work.
“I felt that we’d have a positive with construction, so that’s why I picked that first because you need an easy win,” he says. “I want to leverage those so all contracts are bound by the criteria of living wages, provision employer pays health care plans, retirement plans, recruitment for those who’ve been excluded, proper training and if applicable operate with greenhouse gas factors and spend money locally before contract with big corporate entities.”
This story is the first in Eugene Weekly’s reporting series on the labor movement in Oregon, funded by the Wayne L. Morse Center for Law and Politics.