It isn’t often you see Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum doing the right thing, but earlier this month she filed her second set of legal objections with the state Employment Relations Board (ERB) arguing that the proposed unionization of the state’s Legislative branch is not allowed under Oregon law.
Whether coincidentally or not, the action came just days after Rosenblum received a letter from the Freedom Foundation urging her office to stand firm.
In recent weeks the legislature has become the target of a unionization push by the Washington-based International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) Local 89, which filed a petition in December asking the ERB to certify it as the “exclusive representative” for more than 100 staff assistants who work for individual Oregon state legislators.
If successful, IBEW would have become the nation’s first legislative union — although it soon became clear why the effort hasn’t caught on anywhere else.
Specifically, the unionization of legislative employees runs afoul of the separation of powers doctrine of the Oregon Constitution, since it would require the ERB — an administrative arm of the Executive branch — to order a completely different branch of government (the Legislative) to recognize and bargain with a labor union.
To their credit, legislative officials and attorneys within Rosenblum’s Department of Justice (DOJ) were quick to recognize the problem and promptly filed their first set of objections with the ERB in late December.
Along with the constitutional challenge, the state brought a slew of objections to the union’s proposed “bargaining unit” and pointed out that Oregon’s collective bargaining laws also do not allow for union representation within the Legislative branch.
IBEW subsequently withdrew its petition.
However, the issue was far from resolved. The union soon filed a second petition with a new description of the proposed bargaining unit — and although it solved virtually none of the constitutional or legal problems identified by the state’s attorneys, there appeared to be no guarantee that Rosenblum’s office would take any further action.
Fortunately, the Freedom Foundation stood ready and willing to take action of its own.
The letter, sent on Jan. 29, emphasized the DOJ’s obligation to resolve its original questions of constitutionality and legality — and promised that if it didn’t, the Freedom Foundation would.
Speaking of which, that option is still on the table. Although the DOJ filed its second round of objections on Feb. 4 — shortly after receiving the Freedom Foundation’s letter and on the last day before the ERB’s deadline — the most recent arguments focus entirely on the state’s collective bargaining laws rather than the Oregon Constitution.
That’s not necessarily a problem since, as the Freedom Foundation’s letter pointed out, the issue of constitutionality is better suited for the courts.
But either way, the issue is far from settled. Democratic lawmakers in the Oregon Legislature have now introduced a workaround bill designed to open up a legal path to the unionization, and time will tell whether the DOJ is committed to seeing its legal challenge through to the end.
Rest assured, we’ll be watching closely — and, when necessary, taking action — to ensure it doesn’t happen.