Members of the Service Employee International Union routinely canvass the state Capitol, clad in the purple and gold t-shirts that have become the distinctive mark of one of the state's most powerful labor unions.

In an era when most labor groups are focused intently on improving members' wages and benefit packages, SEIU's "purple army," as they're known, regularly venture outside the domain of most labor organizations to press lawmakers on such wider issues as predatory lending and the plight of the uninsured.

Kurt Kessler of Ashland is the statewide chair of the union's political action committee. He said 50,000-member SEIU Local 503 is not composed of your average union members.

"Of course we want an honest day's pay for an honest day's work, but it's not only about our members," Kessler said. "We're putting a lot of effort into legislation that doesn't only impact our membership and that has enabled us to work with other groups."

Kessler, 46, a social service worker based at the Rogue Valley Council of Governments in Medford, has led the powerful group for more than two years, after being elected by the union's leadership.

"It's not like union bosses sitting in some smoke-filled room making all the decisions," he said. "It's the complete opposite," noting that the union's political action committee, known as CAPE, is controlled democratically.

The union, through its PAC, has partnered with religious groups to bring health care to children and other progressive groups, allowing SEIU to make ambitious pushes beyond just workplace-related gains.

"A lot of people like to think of labor as big money, but the thing of it is, we're lots of little money," he said, noting that many members pay 75 cents a month voluntarily to support the union's political arm. "The only way for working people like me to be effective in the political sphere is to pool our resources and bring our voices together."

The Democratic majority in both chambers for the first time in 16 years, has added to the union's influence, Kessler said, cautioning that although unions have been traditional allies of the Democratic Party, the PAC's loyalties lie with union members rather than any political party.

"There was a time when the Democratic Party and labor were too tight. We're done being an ATM machine for the Democratic Party," Kessler said, quoting Andy Stern, president of SEIU.

Broadening its scope, he said the union has reached out to nontraditional union sectors, including home health workers and daycare providers, and that has strengthened the union in the days when union membership has been on the decline nationally.

"We are trying to bring people up into the middle class," Kessler said, noting that the temptation for unions is to recruit professionals who pay higher dues. "We're just not like that."

covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. Reach him at csrizo@hotmail.com.