“SEIU Local 503… quickly became an important center of resistance. Local 503 was a huge and lively union with a big political agenda and a membership of 20,000. Measure 9 mandated the dismissal of any of them who were openly gay or even sympathetic to gay rights.”
Miriam Frank’s 2014 book, Out In The Union: A Labor History Of Queer America, profiles the No on 9 campaign in a section titled “Busting Bigotry in Oregon.” It includes the role of Alice Dale, Executive Director of SEIU Local 503, the Oregon Public Employees Union (SEIU 503/OPEU), in recruiting other labor unions to oppose Measure 9.
The public employee unions were “obvious partners” – AFT, AFSCME, and NEA all joined the No on 9 coalition. Affiliates of Communication Workers, Postal Workers, and Teamsters joined too. Manufacturing, construction, and maritime industry locals stayed neutral – but not a single union endorsed the Yes on 9 campaign. (Read Anne Sweet’s story about being loaned by her employer to the No on 9 campaign and her activism in Communication Workers of America.)
“Passage of Measure 9 would create a climate of intolerance, and could result in chilling business trade with other states, reducing the number of out-of-state visitors and tourists. Jobs would be lost. Oregon doesn’t need such negative publicity and we can’t afford it.”Oregon AFL-CIO
“Labor’s role in defending the civil rights of all LGBT workers was disproportionate to the number of Oregonians who were actual union members,” writes Frank. “But the labor unions’ influence among working families in Oregon’s socially conservative interior regions was substantial. There, unions were essential to the economy of communities, and their advocacy of an issue was more likely to be trusted than messages from less familiar political sources.”
Frank notes that in the same year in which we defeated Measure 9, “Gay organizations and unions fail[ed] to coalesce” in Colorado, where voters approved a similar anti-gay measure by 53 percent.
Today, in 2022, SEIU 503/OPEU membership has grown to 65,000. Current Executive Director Melissa Unger says, “We led on Measure 9 because it was an attack on workers. Every worker needs the right to feel safe at work. If Measure 9 had passed, it would have excluded our gay and lesbian staff from rights held by all other workers. The courage of our member leaders and our organization in taking that stand has impacted our union to this day.”
“We were clear about our values – that being in a union is about more than just wages and benefits, but also about safety, respect, and protection for every worker, no matter where you come from, your gender identity, or your race. This set the stage for us to continue to partner with Basic Rights Oregon and to take stands, like our union did on Black Lives Matter, nearly 30 years later.”Melissa Unger, SEIU 503/OPEU Executive Director
Opposing the Nullification of Rights
Thirty years ago, for SEIU 503/ OPEU, the fight was personal. The first statewide anti-gay campaign launched by the Oregon Citizens Alliance (OCA) – 1988’s successful Measure 8 – was inspired, in part, by a SEIU collective bargaining victory.
Ann Montague, at the time a clerical worker at Oregon State University, says, “It’s important to understand what led up to SEIU 503 going all out and fighting to reject Measure 9. We could have been a union that just ‘sat this one out.’”
Ann says “the beginning, in terms of SEIU 503, was centered around 1986-87 bargaining. A group of lesbians who were union members at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon met and discussed the fact that we needed to add ‘sexual orientation’ to Article 22, the non-discrimination section of our contract. We started getting signatures in our workplaces, which meant talking to coworkers about our issues and organizing around bargaining. At this time we did not know Beckie Capoferri and Bob Ralphs at Dammasch. It turned out, they were doing the same thing.”
Bob chaired Local 503’s sub-local at Dammasch psychiatric hospital where Beckie was also a union officer. Beckie told Out in the Union, “We had gay members throughout the unit, and our Executive Council was mostly queer. As far as noneconomic terms were concerned, that Article 22 issue had more interest than any other item.”
“My guess is that union staff were letting gays they knew across the state know what was happening,” Ann says. “When we all took the signatures to the Bargaining Conference we had more signatures than any other issue. I remember our executive director, Alice Dale commenting on the huge number and saying, ‘Well, this is definitely going on the bargaining table.’ She called for the vote and it passed.”
After a rolling strike centered on comparable worth demands, SEIU 503/OPEU won a new contract that included the ban on discrimination based on sexual orientation, “an innovation that set the pace for the rest of the state’s workforce,” according to Out in the Union. It led to the Governor’s Executive Order extending this same protection to executive branch employees – which is what was overturned by passage of Measure 8.
The idea that worker rights, established through collective bargaining, could be nullified by popular vote, was not one that SEIU 503/OPEU was willing to let stand.
They implemented a training program for shop stewards on discrimination in the workplace, led by Ann Montague and the gay and lesbian caucus. The importance of such training is illustrated the experiences of Oregon Tradeswomen leader Connie Ashbrook, recounted in Out In The Union. Connie came out at work in the elevator construction industry “merely by displaying a ‘No on 9’ bumper sticker on her lunchbox. She told her union business agent that the measure would harm her personally. He said he already knew. Then he made some sort of joke. ‘Well, I always said, you can’t knock something unless you’ve tried it, and I’m not about to try it.’”
Ann remembers “How To Fight Homophobia In The Workplace,” their stewards training on homophobia, as a first-in-the-nation and a great success. “We were quite nervous when we first gave the training at a huge Stewards Conference,” she says. “We said from the beginning this was not to be a ‘touchy feely, get in touch with your homophobia’ session. We gathered actual situations of discrimination in a variety of workplaces. And the stewards discussed what they would do. Was it a grievance? Or a worksite action? Could they do anything to assist? What had the steward done wrong or right?” (Learn more about the training.)
This, in Ann’s view, is what made SEIU 503 “ready to mobilize our union in the fight” against Measure 9.
“Our timing on the stewards training proved to be just right,” Ann told Miriam Frank. “Had the educational work not been done over the previous year, I doubt that our union would have been ready to oppose Measure 9 as aggressively as we did.”
In addition to leading the No on 9 Labor Coalition and ensuring SEIU 503/OPEU and other locals contributed financially to the campaign, Alice Dale assigned Beckie Capoferri to work full-time on No on 9. Beckie wrote up what they learned for the NGLTF Fight the Right Action Kit; read it here. As one example of the impact of the strategic organizing she supported, she told Miriam Frank about the coaching she provided to a member of a local that was hesitant to oppose Measure 9. The steps they took led to a No on 9 endorsement and a financial contribution, and “was the beginning of new leadership for that local….Now they’re a union that’s organizing.”
“Proud To Be Out & Loud In My Union”
Robert Doyle reached out to No on 9 Remembered to share his story:
“I moved to Oregon to take a job with the state OSHA. I got involved with the SEIU local that represented state employees and I met Becky Capoferri and Renee DeLapp. Becky had organized Pride At Work, the LGBT labor coalition. I became involved with the political action committee in the SEIU local, and our Pride At Work chapter made a presentation at the endorsement convention of the local.
“We assembled packets of information for the delegates attending. We got pink stickers and placed them on selected delegate packets, roughly 15 percent of the delegates. We were given a few minutes to talk about LGBT rights and Measure 9. We explained that LGBT people have always been part of the labor movement but the labor movement had not always been there for us. We then talked about Measure 9 and the impact on LGBT union members. At that point we asked everyone who had a pink sticker on their packet to stand up. We explained that with the passage of Measure 9, they just lost their jobs and were labeled as sick perverts. After the presentation the local enthusiastically came out against Measure 9.
“I was the labor representative on the Campaign steering committee. With the support of SEIU and other unions, I spoke with the director of the Oregon AFL-CIO and asked him to come out against Measure 9. He said that many members supported the measure and didn’t want to endorse. I told him that we LGBT union members were paying dues and reminded him of the doctrine of the duty of fair representation. I told him that Pride At Work would be picketing the Oregon AFL-CIO headquarters if he didn’t do the right thing. He finally agreed to come out against Measure 9 and to encourage members to vote No on 9. That opposition to Measure 9 was announced in the next newsletter, mailed to every local and every member in Oregon.
“Meeting and working with Beckie Capoferri and Renee DeLapp was one of the best experiences in my life. I was so proud to be out and loud in my union.”
Challenging Times Then & Now
Len Norwitz, presently a Political and Electoral Strategist for SEIU Local 503, was on their external organizing staff and loaned out to the 1994 version of the No on 9 campaign. A past staff member at Western States Center, he remembers that “the early ’90’s had SEIU supporting the farmworker union PCUN, helping defend against the LGBTQ attacks, and jumping in against anti-choice efforts. The leadership and membership – like many folks in Oregon – were tested to get out of their comfort zones, for sure. Those were challenging times.”
As to how the collective effort to defeat the anti-LGBT attack prevailed? Len says, “Great story telling and strategic, relational conversations won the day and continue to … so in that sense nothing new – and still what’s needed in these contentious and factional times.”
“We must learn from those who came before us, and pick up the torch to continue the fight to dismantle oppression against our community. Today this includes organizing against assaults on Trans rights and gender-affirming care, the removal of trans youth from their families, the attempted erasure of queer folks in schools and elsewhere, trans/non-binary folks being left out of conversations around reproductive rights, the disproportionate impacts of these attacks on Black and Brown Queer folks, the looming threat of marriage equality being overturned, and more.”SEIU 503 field organizer Francesca Edmonds
More on Organized Labor on This Site
- Organizing Organized Labor, Beckie Capoferri’s section in the NGLTF’s 1993 Fight the Right Action Kit.
- Anne Sweet’s story about her activism in Communication Workers of America, and being loaned by her employer to the No on 9 campaign.
- PCUN Union Hall, the story of how Oregon’s farmworkers’ union took a courageous stand for LGBTQ Oregonians, setting in motion one of the most durable legacies of Ballot Measure 9.
- Bigot Busters, the story of SEIU 503/OPEU leader Bob Ralphs’ efforts to dissuade Oregonians from signing bigoted initiative petitions; many union members volunteered with Bigot Busters on the weekends. Participant Robert Doyle, a labor activist, says “It didn’t keep Measure 9 off the ballot but it was clear that directly challenging the lies and misinformation changed minds. We have to be out, loud and proud about our democracy and equality.”
More on Oregon’s LGBTQ Labor History
- “We Are Union Builders Too: Oregon Union Tackles Discrimination Based On Sexual Orientation” by Ann Montague, Labor Research Review #20 (1993)
- “Nine Days That Shook Oregon” by Ann Montague (originally published 1988, reprinted in Labor Standard 2017)
- Out In The Union: A Labor History Of Queer America, by Miriam Frank (2014)
As they say on The Moth Radio Hour, “Moth stories are true as remembered and affirmed by the storyteller.” Read more about the benefits and challenges of historical memory.