Oregon labor federation gets new leader as unions tackle more political issues

Graham Trainor recently became president of the Oregon AFL-CIO following years of union organizing and activisim (Oregon AFL-CIO photo)

PORTLAND — Graham Trainor has taken the helm at one of the state’s largest labor groups at a time when workers in Oregon — already a strong union state — appear emboldened, engaging in ambitious bargaining, strikes and demonstrations.

Trainor was elected in September to become president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, a labor federation representing the interests of about 300,000 private and public sector workers.

A longtime Oregon AFL-CIO staffer, Trainor is described by some as the heir apparent to Tom Chamberlain, a widely respected labor leader who had led the federation since 2005.

At 38, Trainor is noticeably self-assured, but conscious of how he is perceived. He appears somewhat private about the inner workings of the federation, declining through a spokesman to allow a reporter to shadow him at work.

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But in a recent interview, he spoke at length in response to questions about his background and current issues facing workers.

Trainor thinks workers, and particularly younger workers, are increasingly turning to the labor movement because they don’t know who else is on their side in the face of growing income inequality, housing costs, and student loan debt.

A national Gallup poll in August showed unions are gaining popular support. Trainor said workers feel left behind despite a booming economy.

“Workers are at a point where they can’t be pushed further,” he said.

Today’s economy, Trainor said, is “more fissured, more precarious, I would argue, than the economy 14 years ago when Tom took over.”

“Young workers have been, in many ways, sold a bill of goods that, if they go to college and they rack up all this student debt, they’re going to be able to get out of it in no time and realize the American dream,” Trainor said. “And unfortunately, that’s just not working out for them.”

Trainor said the definition of a “workers’ issue” is expanding beyond the traditional realm of wages, hours and benefits, to include issues like affordable housing and sexual harassment.

Automation and other efforts by the tech industry to “capitalize on innovation” — for instance, by hiring rideshare drivers as contractors instead of as employees — pose yet another obstacle for Oregon workers.

“It’s our job to always ask, what about the workers?” Trainor said. “What are workers getting out of this?”

The overall rise in workers’ collective action is exciting, Trainor said. But he says it’s up to organized labor to seize that opportunity.“It’s showing what working-class solidarity can lead to and what successes can come from it,” Trainor told KMUZ radio host Bob Rossi in an October interview. “But it’s really incumbent on the organized labor movement in Oregon and across the country to not just harness the power for collective action in contract fights, or fights that that are in existing unionized shops. It’s really, what can we as an organized labor movement do to harness that same power and all of that collective action to truly grow our movement?”

Trainor’s political work has proven an outlet for what he described as a something of a rebellious streak growing up in conservative rural Indiana.

“Once I had the taste of fighting for something bigger than me, helping people come to power and then by extension and progression, helping workers come to power in lots of different ways, that’s where I think it was really fostered and grew,” he said.

He likes to talk about how he comes from generations of union members. His mother was a teacher and union member; his grandfather made gears — and at 93 is still a member of the United Auto Workers, receiving a union pension. Trainor keeps a print above his desk of a Diego Rivera fresco depicting auto workers.

After graduating from Indiana University in 2004, he got a job as a community organizer, rallying community members to protest mercury pollution and a landfill expansion.

He can’t recall now the result of either effort, but talking to people on their doorsteps, showing them how they could have a voice and push back on the Goliaths of the world, had an impact.

“That was really powerful,” Trainor said. “And it really shaped my commitment to activism.”

Organizing work took him around the Midwest and to the East Coast, working on issues from clean water to health care.

Eventually, he came to Oregon, drawn to the Pacific Northwest by a love of the outdoors. He was hired as state director at the Oregon chapter of Working America, a unit of the state AFL-CIO that organized workers who weren’t members of a union.

In the following years, Trainor moved up through the labor ranks, getting more involved in political work.

Trainor ran the labor-backed campaign in 2008 against Measure 64, which would have undercut public sector unions by prohibiting the use of payroll deductions for union dues. Chamberlain sent Trainor to the Oregon Legislature to lobby on behalf of workers. And Trainor took on the roles of field director, and then political director before becoming chief of staff.

“Everything I’ve given to Graham, he’s excelled in,” Chamberlain said.

Chamberlain said he noticed early that Trainor had the potential to become the group’s president.

He listens,” Chamberlain said. “If you’re leading a federation of union leaders, which we are, it’s important that we’re listening to what our affiliates have to say and finding those avenues where we can help them. And Graham has developed those skills.”Chamberlain said Trainor is “extremely organized” and “has a passion for the work.”

Yet Trainor’s quick rise wasn’t without setbacks. An early attempt to grow membership through organizing at AFL-CIO fell flat.

“While I wouldn’t call it completely a failure … we learned a lot of things aong the way as we think about the changing economy and the changing demands on workers and what it takes to organize in this environment,” Trainor said.

And today, the Oregon AFL-CIO has more members than it did before a major national split led to several large unions leaving the federation, cutting membership in the state federation roughly in half.

Two of Oregon largest unions, the Service Employees International Union and the Oregon Education Association, aren’t part of the Oregon AFL-CIO.

In the Oregon labor world, the AFL-CIO is known for the bread and butter work of organizing.

The federation has also backed significant policy gains for Oregon workers, even those without union support. Recent legislation increased the minimum wage, required large employers to notify retail workers of their schedules ahead of time, and provided more paid family leave.

“All those things are a pro-worker agenda, which goes beyond what any union is doing in its own bargaining unit,” said Tim Nesbitt, who lead the Oregon AFL-CIO from 1999 to 2005. “And so it represents the labor movement writ large, in that sense.”

Nesbitt declined to comment on the leadership change, citing “sensitivity” over his former role. (Nesbitt has advocated for reducing public workers’ retirement benefits in order to stave off the debt crisis in the state’s public pension system).

Trainor elicits praise from leaders of the federation’s affiliate unions, which matters because the federation is entirely voluntary. And its leader must keep disparate interests engaged and cooperative, a challenge when the federation represents a wide range of professions, from doctors to bakers to steelworkers, who don’t always agree on public policy.

Stacy Chamberlain, executive director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75 — and Tom Chamberlain’s daughter — has also been on the board of the AFL-CIO for a number of years on and off. She described Trainor as thoughtful.

“He doesn’t come into the room with the answer,” Chamberlain said. “He might have an idea of what direction to go into. But it’s very clear that he wants to have a very thorough discussion to try to make a decision as a team about what we need to do and where we need to go.”

Robert Camarillo, the executive secretary of the Oregon State Building Trades and Construction Council, agreed. The council of local unions representing workers from electricians to plumbers sometimes diverges from other unions in the federation on policy issues, Camarillo said.

“Graham does a good job of making sure that everybody’s got the information and making sure that his umbrella organization does not tilt the scale either way,” Camarillo said.

Earlier this year, Trainor helped affiliates understand a controversial proposal to cap the state’s carbon emissions, Camarillo said. The Oregon AFL-CIO was neutral on the policy.

“(Trainor) and his team played a key role in making sure that none of us got tangled up, or (that it) created any friction between any of us,” Camarillo said. “Those are the types of things that damage relationships.”

Trainor also knows when to take the reins and when to take a step back, said Dan Clay, president of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555.

“Sometimes somebody’s got to be the person in the front of the room who’s making the plans and directing everything,” Clay said. “And sometimes that’s not the role. And Graham seems to do real well at figuring out which role that is.

Trainor still has his activist streak. He was among labor leaders arrested last year for at a sit-in at the Portland office of Volunteers of America. The move was to support workers there negotiating for better working conditions with a contract later settled.

“I think in part, it goes back to showing those workers that leaders were willing to put it all on the line for them,” Trainor said.

Contact reporter Claire Withycombe: [email protected] or 971-304-4148.