Brad Avakian was interviewed by phone Friday, Oct. 26, 2012.
Q. What do you think the accomplishment is that you’re most proud of as labor commissioner?
A. I think it would have to be the bringing together a very diverse group of labor unions, business associations and professional educators to see the return of 21st Century shop classes to our middle schools and high schools.
What employers tell me all the time is in order to create jobs, they need a good locally skilled workforce and this is a first step in providing that for Oregon’s employers.
Q. If re-elected, what will your focus be next term?
A. Well, first we have got to continue the effort of bringing back the 21st Century shop classes. We’ve got 21 schools this year fully restored and this will be an effort every year for 10 years until every middle school and high school in this state has access to these programs.
The second thing is we’ve undertaken an effort with the Oregon Council of Civil Rights, which I created a few years ago, to address equal pay for equal work. Women still only earn 78 cents on the dollar compared to men in Oregon. And minorities only 60 cents on the dollar compared to their white male counterparts. And we’re rolling out a plan to eliminate wage disparity in Oregon.
Q. You’re opponent talks about helping to create jobs for Oregon. How much does the labor commissioner have control over or an influence over job creation in the state and in what way?
A. The labor commissioner does play a role, but it has to be a partnership with other state officials. Our role is to see that Oregon has the best trained, most ready workforce you can find anywhere. And we’ve got a great start on that through the middle school and high school programs and through our apprenticeship programs.
As an example, in the last four years we’ve put over 6,200 apprentices in good paying jobs. And so our role is in job training. The other is to make sure that employers are not needlessly spending money defending themselves in claims at the Bureau of Labor and Industries or getting caught up in regulation and instead to invest that in their own business. And that’s why I’ve instituted a new way of investigating cases in the bureau where we dismiss (certain) claims immediately, taking the lawyers out of the process when that’s appropriate.
Q. The office is nonpartisan but there does seem to be a little bit of partisanship going on here because the business community/interests seem to be lining up behind Sen. Starr and unions appear to be lining up mostly behind you, why do you think that is?
A. Well, I don’t think that’s completely accurate. The unions have all gone with me. There’s not one single group in the state that advocates for workers that is supporting Bruce Starr. But the business community that works most closely with the bureau – Associated General Contractors, the Sheet Metal Contractors and other individual contractors around the state are supporting me, not Sen. Starr. So both the labor and business groups that are most closely linked to the bureau are supporting me.
Bruce does have some support from some other business groups, and I think that’s because he’s made comments like wanting to repeal the prevailing wage. He doesn’t support Oregon’s minimum wage as it is. He wants Oregon to be a right-to-work state and bust the unions, and that’s attracted the more conservative side of the business community.
Q. Why should voters re-elect you over Sen. Starr?
A. I think there’re two reasons.
The first is our relative experience in how closely it matches the duties of this job. I was a civil rights lawyer for 15 years in Oregon prosecuting state, federal civil rights cases. And so my entire career has involved the very things that this agency’s mission includes – protecting workers.
The other is this: it takes great balance to do this job well. My support from labor and my support from the business community that works with the agency shows that I’ve got the kind of balance to navigate the tricky issues that are present at the bureau. Bruce simply doesn’t have that balance.