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Despite fierce pushback, an Oregon union is proceeding in its efforts to recall an influential Democrat

State Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, has long been considered one of the most labor-friendly lawmakers in Salem. He faces potential recall by a union that believes he blocked its priority bill this year.
Bradley W. Parks
State Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene, has long been considered one of the most labor-friendly lawmakers in Salem. He faces potential recall by a union that believes he blocked its priority bill this year.

UFCW Local 555 says it's well on its way to forcing a recall election on Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. Senate Democrats have tried to intervene.

Democratic lawmakers last week urged one of the state’s largest labor unions to end an attempt to recall one of their colleagues.

They did not get the response they might have hoped for.

In a blistering letter sent June 2, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 said it had no plans to stop. The union has already put down $100,000 to fund a recall on state Rep. Paul Holvey, a Eugene Democrat considered one of the strongest labor champions in the statehouse.

And the union’s president, Dan Clay, went further. He laid out years’ worth of grievances his tens of thousands of members have with state policymakers — from a decision not to prioritize grocery workers for COVID-19 vaccines, to how the state chose to distribute pandemic relief money, to the death of the union’s priority bill this year.

The union is so disillusioned, Clay wrote, that it is likely to abandon the statehouse altogether in coming years, pushing ballot measures instead of bills.

“It is clear that we cannot bank on the Legislative Assembly at large to have the best interests of our members at heart — to say nothing of the fact that the Legislature cannot even say with certainty whether it will be functioning in the foreseeable future!” Clay wrote, in a nod to an ongoing Republican walkout in the Senate.

The response amounts to the workers’ union doubling down on a recall that caught legislative Democrats and Republicans completely off guard. It came after 16 Senate Democrats sent the union a letter May 30 saying they were “surprised and deeply concerned” the union chose to target Holvey.

“We are always prepared to hear your disagreement or criticism of our policy work,” read the letter, written by Sen. Jeff Golden, D-Ashland. “At the same time, we ask you to reconsider your current course of action in the interest of maintaining our productive relationship for a better future for working Oregonians.”

Senate Democrats did not circulate the letter publicly, and the union also kept its reply private. Neither group sent the documents to OPB.

The workers’ union announced May 22 it will attempt to convince voters in Holvey’s district to remove him from his seat via a recall election later this year. To force that election, the union must collect 4,598 signatures from voters in Holvey’s district by Aug. 21.

The union is hoping to convince voters that Holvey — a former carpenters’ union representative — has slowly morphed from a devout labor ally to an impediment.

“We hate that we’re recalling Paul Holvey,” reads a flier circulating in Eugene. “But District 8 deserves someone who is accessible, responsive and accountable to their constituents, and most of all someone who reflects our values.”

UFCW, whose members work in grocery and retail stores across Oregon, says its concerns emerged over the course of years. The union was incensed in 2022, when its proposal to target pandemic stimulus payments to frontline workers was scrapped in favor of $600 payments to a wide range of low-wage workers. But the death of the union’s top bill this session, House Bill 3183, is a key motivator in the recall.

HB 3183 attempted to make it easier to organize cannabis workers. It would have required business owners to agree not to block efforts to unionize as a condition of landing a state license.

Holvey suspected that the proposal violated federal labor law, and he says legislative attorneys validated his concerns repeatedly. He notes that he sent the bill to the House Rules Committee, where it still has a chance of passage.

“We’re further puzzled at the intensity of the reaction in this particular situation, given that Rep. Holvey went to great lengths to determine the legality of the proposed legislation and then moved the bill to the House Rules Committee rather than let it die,” the Senate Democrats’ letter read.

The union believes the bill was on firm legal footing, and says it could have explained that to Holvey if he would have communicated his concerns earlier.

“He chose a path of absolute silence and non engagement,” Michael Selvaggio, UFCW’s lobbyist, said last month, calling the bill the “straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The decision to recall Holvey bewildered and infuriated many Democrats, who say claims that he’s turned his back on labor are laughable.

“I remember the days when we thought of recall as a tool for serious misconduct,” Golden said Monday. “When you roll it out in response to a legislator’s position on a particular bill, in my mind you’re confusing recalls with elections.”

Golden’s letter makes the case that labor organizations should be banding together with Democrats, who often share their values, rather than launching a “misdirected” recall at a time when conservative senators who “do not share the same policy priorities” are threatening to upend the session with a walkout.

The union was particularly pointed in responding to that argument.

“Please do not make the mistake of assuming that we are a partisan organization,” Clay wrote. “We have members of all political affiliations and our allegiance is to their common interests. Some of you share our interests very deeply; some less so.”

Senate Democrats aren’t the only entity pressuring UFCW to change course. Other labor unions — including the state’s largest, Service Employees International Union Local 503 — have criticized the move.

“Our members have endorsed Rep. Holvey every time has run and he has been there for us on many issues,” said SEIU Local 503 Executive Director Melissa Unger. “UFCW has made a different decision.”

The rift only highlights how UFCW has drifted politically from other large unions in recent years. In 2022, the labor group drafted a proposal for campaign finance limits that differed from a competing plan floated by public sector unions and advocacy groups. Neither were ultimately pursued.

And the union parted with many large labor organizationsby backing Nicholas Kristof over Tina Kotek in last year’s Democratic primary for governor. Kristof was eventually ruled ineligible to run due to residency requirements.

UFCW is showing no signs of slowing its recall effort.

Selvaggio said Tuesday he had dozens of signature gatherers out in Holvey’s Eugene district, and had gathered half the raw number of signatures required to force a recall (some of which will be deemed invalid). UFCW has tapped Osprey Field Services, a signature-gathering firm Selvaggio once owned, to complete the work, he said.

Despite that momentum, UFCW does plan to ask its board on Thursday whether it still supports a recall, given the political backlash.

“They will have a chance to revote,” Selvaggio said. “I don’t think that will change things.”

Copyright 2023 Oregon Public Broadcasting. To see more, visit Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Dirk VanderHart is JPR's Salem correspondent reporting from the Oregon State Capitol. His reporting is funded through a collaboration between public radio stations around the Northwest called the Northwest News Network.