Conservative legislators complain that balancing Oregon's budget is often hamstrung by the political might of unions.

Conservative legislators complain that balancing Oregon's budget is often hamstrung by the political might of unions.

Unions say they are fighting to maintain ever-shrinking salaries and benefits in the wake of a growing movement to undermine collective bargaining nationwide.

Both are caught in a political tug-of-war over a $3.5 billion budget hole that is putting salaries, benefits and public retirement plans under scrutiny.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said union lobbyists and negotiators are working alongside elected officials who received campaign financing from unions.

"It reminds me of a couple of wolves talking about what's for dinner, and the dinner is the sheep, which is the taxpayer," he said in a phone interview from the state Capitol. "I think they wield a lot of power in this building."

Ed Hershey, spokesman for the Service Employees International Union Local 503, agreed that unions do put money into campaigns and actively lobby in the Capitol, but they do so alongside lobbyists for corporations and other interest groups.

"We are, in effect, balancing the scales," he said. "We are leveling the playing field."

For instance, Hershey said, while unions supported John Kitzhaber's successful bid for governor last year, corporations injected huge amounts of money into opponent Chris Dudley's campaign.

If the unions hadn't donated to Kitzhaber's campaign, he wouldn't have been able to run TV ads countering Dudley's, Hershey said.

"What these people are complaining about is that the other side has a voice," he said.

Since taking office, Kitzhaber has said any concessions from unions will be accomplished only through the normal collective bargaining process.

With the House split with 30 Republicans and 30 Democrats, and Kitzhaber winning by a small majority, Hershey shrugged off claims of unions' influence. "What inordinate power?" he said.

Unions have been on the defensive recently as states such as Wisconsin pass laws undermining collective bargaining rights. While Kitzhaber said that won't happen in Oregon, the anti-union sentiment could give some legislators more leverage this session as they seek concessions during bargaining to balance the state budget.

Unions already have been fighting back, attacking Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, in TV ads for his role in fashioning a $5.7 billion education budget. Richardson and Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, and Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, were instrumental in reaching a compromise on the education spending plan.

Richardson calls the ads a political hit piece that disingenuously leaves out the fact that two Democrats helped craft the budget plan, which offers $100 million more than Kitzhaber's education proposal.

Because unions are so closely involved in Salem politics, Richardson said, the unions get favored pensions, benefits and pay.

Buckley said he fully supports the efforts unions undertake as they appeal to legislators to preserve the programs that help Oregonians while saving jobs.

"Unions, in my opinion, defend working families more than any other entity in the Capitol," he said. "They push for decisions that will support the middle class. Without them, I don't know who would be fighting for the right to make a decent living."

Buckley said conservatives often complain about union lobbyists, but he said corporations can make or break legislation, as well.

"I've seen the business lobby kill hundreds of bills in the Legislature," he said.

Often lost in the discussion is the fact that many of these jobs have a real impact on the lives of Oregonians who are disabled or elderly, he said.

When a union like SEIU fights for its rights, those rights include making sure that in-home care programs for the disabled don't fall under the budget ax, he said.

Becca Uherbelau, spokeswoman for the Oregon Education Association, said the teachers' union often has stepped up to the plate to help Oregon through its budgetary problems, offering concessions for pay, health care and furlough days.

"We're trying to be part of the solution," she said. "We need to look at a long-term funding system that attracts the best teachers."

At the same time, government has piled on unfunded mandates that require more work from teachers while detracting from the time they can spend with students.

"It's sort of like the flavor of the day," she said.

The recently passed education budget will sharply impact schools, she said. Legislators left about $400 million out of the budget for reserves that she said could have been invested in schools.

Every $100 million cut from the education budget is the equivalent of 1,100 teaching jobs, or a week's worth of school, she said.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, said unions invest heavily in both lobbying efforts and in reelecting candidates who will treat them favorably.

"The power that unions have is the power to delay budgets," he said. "Unions, for the most part, have a very strong authority over the Legislature."

The money and lobbying ultimately create an environment in the Capitol that breeds partisanship, Atkinson said.

While some conservatives are adverse to the very idea of unions, Atkinson said they have their place.

"I don't fault anybody for working hard and doing well," he said.

Atkinson finds public employee unions have a strongly partisan tendency, while trade unions are less political.

Esquivel said union lobbyists manipulate members of legislative committees and are fully entrenched in every aspect of lawmaking in Salem.

Esquivel said the unions that have the most impact on policy are the Oregon Education Association, the SEIU and the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees.

As a result of union lobbying, Esquivel said, teachers in Oregon receive some of the best pay and benefits in the country, while student performance lags behind much of the nation.

"I don't mind paying No. 1 in benefits if we are No. 1 in results," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email