Lumber Mill in Camas, WA

Source: Hannah Hoffman, Statesman Journal

Money has started pouring in to support a ballot initiative that would allow public employees to refuse to pay union dues, and it’s coming almost entirely from one place: the timber industry.

Rob Freres, executive vice president of Freres Brothers Lumber, Inc., in Lyons, has donated $30,000 on behalf of the company. Meanwhile, prolific Republican donor Andrew Miller, president of Stimson Lumber, has given $6,000.

Although Stimson Lumber has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Republican candidates and causes across the state over the years (including more than $500,000 to gubernatorial candidate Chris Dudley in 2010), Freres has a more modest donation history.

He said supporting this potential ballot measure means two things to him: protecting freedom of choice and striking back against Oregon’s political establishment.

“I’m not anti-union,” he said. “I just believe members should have the freedom of association.”

Oregonians value choice, he said, in everything from who they marry to how their elderly years conclude. Union membership should be no different.

The choice Freres talks about is whether to join a union or not. As it is now, government employees who work in a position represented by their union must join to the degree that they pay monthly dues. They can opt out of paying into the union’s political fund, and they don’t have to participate in elections or union activities, but they must pay dues.

If the Public Employees Choice Act, as it’s called, were to make it onto the ballot and pass with voters, public employees could refuse to pay dues entirely, essentially refusing to join their unions at all.

Many people say this is unfair. These workers still would have union-negotiated contracts, they say, and should pay for the union’s services.

However, people who fall into Freres’ camp say it’s unfair to force people to pay dues, and effectively join, a group they don’t support.

“Right-to-work” laws like this one have sprung up across the country, usually targeting government employees. Wisconsin famously passed a similar law, and Ohio grappled with one a couple of years ago. Indiana became an entirely right-to-work state in 2012, but the state’s Supreme Court ruled this year that the law was unconstitutional.

Scott Moore, spokesman for left-wing political committee Our Oregon, said right-to-work laws are designed to undermine unions, not provide workers more choice.

“This proposed ballot measure is an attack on all working families in Oregon,” he said. “We know from other states where similar laws have been enacted that these anti-worker attacks lower the standards for everyone, leading to lower wages and fewer protections for workers.”

Would this initiative erode unions’ power? Yes, Freres said, and that’s a good thing.

“I believe that if Oregon is going to be a place where our children and grandchildren can get a good education, it’s important that the public employees’ unions do not dominate the politics in this state,” he said.

Public unions have become a political juggernaut, he said, supporting almost exclusively Democratic candidates and spending tens of millions to elect candidates who will support them once they’re in office.

He said less union power could even out the political playing field, ending the unions’ political domination of Oregon politics.

“I think the unions would have less money to spend electing one party of candidates,” he said.

Gov. John Kitzhaber has said publicly he will oppose this ballot measure, largely because he thinks it will be too politically divisive. He wants to rewrite Oregon’s tax code in 2015, and the legislature will not get it done if its members are still arguing about the appropriate role of unions. Kitzhaber has said he wants both business and labor on board with tax reform, and a ballot measure like this will simply have them fighting.

He was not available for further comment Wednesday.

Moore said Our Oregon will fight back against the initiative, although it hasn’t raised the same kind of money yet.

“If and when this initiative qualifies for the ballot, we and a broad coalition of organizations from around the state will mount an aggressive campaign to defeat it,” he said.

hhoffman@StatesmanJournal.com, (503) 399-6719 or follow at twitter.com/HannahKHoffman

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