‘Working Class Champion’

On April 27, the Lane, Coos, Curry, Douglas Building Trades Council announced that its first-ever “Working Class Champion” award was given to Lane County Commissioner Joe Berney. 

The building trades council that represents unions — including electrical workers, carpenters and plumbers — wanted to present such an award but struggled to find the right recipient for it, said Kail Zuschlag, a member of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers 

“With Joe Berney coming around, we decided now was the time because we haven’t had a champion like this before,” Zuschlag says. “This guy is the people’s champion, the working class champion.” 

The council highlighted Berney’s work as a commissioner in having Lane County adopt the community benefits agreement (CBA) framework. A CBA is language that prioritizes public project bids from construction companies that not only pay prevailing wages but also offer full time health benefits for all workers and apprenticeship programs for diverse demographics. Berney and state Sen. James Manning introduced a bill that was approved in 2021 that makes it easier for other public entities to adopt a CBA framework. 

During his acceptance speech, Berney said that any Lane County public project that costs more than $1 million must abide by the community benefits agreement, and on April 19, he added, the Lane County Board of County Commissioners voted to decrease the cost of construction to $500,000.  

Berney also joked that EW asked him in 2018 when he was running against then-Commissioner Sid Leiken about the presence of union contributions to his campaign and whether it may appear that he’ll be influenced by organized labor. “Labor is for living wages, and employer-paid health insurance for all workers and retiring with dignity and trying to recruit a diverse workforce — no, I don’t have a problem with that,” he said. 

Berney is in the midst of a re-election campaign for his seat on the board against David Loveall.

Whether he wins or loses on May 17, Berney said his goal is to work to establish community benefits agreements at public agencies throughout the state. “We need to have a plan in four years to secure over 70 percent of the just-south of $10 billion annually spent in this state on public construction projects,” he says. “That’s what I want to work on in the next four years of my life.”