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Q&A with new state labor chief

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

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Will work for balance

When Gov. Ted Kulongoski tapped Brad Avakian to be the state’s labor commissioner, the former Democratic senator and one-time civil rights lawyer says he had one thought: I’ll finally get to tackle the workforce issues I didn’t have time for while I was in office.

Avakian is stepping into a contentious position: The business community often saw outgoing commissioner Dan Gardner — who resigned to become a lobbyist for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers in Washington, D.C. — as overly supportive of labor unions. Avakian says he’ll be able to find a balance between the two sides. He doesn’t have long. He’ll need a lot of support if he’s going to win in November when voters decide who to elect as labor commissioner.

Just as long as his kids don’t get wise to his job before they turn 18.

What was your first job?
Pumping gas at a Flying A in Beaverton. Actually my first job was picking berries and hazelnuts. But my first wage-paying job was at the gas station. I was 15 years old.

Has your idea of what’s important to labor changed as you’ve gotten older?
I suppose it’s developed. I believe there’s a great balance in life. I’m a very big supporter of organized labor. Unions have a place in that balance. But to fully understand that, you need viable industry so you can have jobs. That sense of balance has developed over time.

Did working as the chair of the Psychologist Examiners board from 1995-1997 prepare you for working with the Legislature?
(Laughs) It certainly gave me tools to work through the budget with the Ways and Means committee. But I’m completely unqualified to diagnose members of the Legislature.

Over the past 40 years in Oregon politics, who did the best job of addressing labor issues?
I think Wayne Morse struck the kind of balance I was talking about. He understood the rights of the workers and the necessity of having strong business. He would have to make one of the all-star lists.

When the Governor’s office announced your name, the fact that your former law firm represented unions was brought up in the media:
Listen, I was very humbled by it, but I was named [Legislative] consensus builder of the year [by the Oregon League of Conservation Voters in 2007] for one reason: I have very deep relationships within the Democratic and Republican ranks, and I have very good relationships with the labor and business communities. It enabled me to pass some very specific legislation. I’m guessing any comments are coming from corners that haven’t spent time with me.

You have two teenage children. How does the labor commissioner get his kids to do housework?
I’ve got to figure out how to get my own housework done first.

Is it a union household?
If my kids understood collective bargaining they’d organize right now. And because of my background as a civil rights lawyer I’d have to support their efforts.                                                                        

ABRAHAM HYATT


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