Thanks in large part to the organization of home care providers, labor is bucking the national shrinking trend
BY SHERRI BURI MCDONALD
September 3, 2012
U.S. union membership, as a percentage of the overall work force, was on a slow and steady slide for at least a decade before the recent recession.
Oregon’s rate, although consistently higher than the national average, followed along that same downward trend.
But in 2007, Oregon’s rate of unionized workers began to turn up slightly, while the national average continued to fall.
Last year, 270,000 workers in Oregon belonged to a union, up 28 percent from 2006. Union workers accounted for 17.1 percent of wage and salary workers in Oregon last year, compared with the national average of 11.8 percent.
Oregon’s rate of union membership — tied with California — was the sixth highest in the nation, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Why has the rate of union membership managed to grow in Oregon in recent years?
“We continue to have pretty high public sector union representation, so that’s one piece of it,” said Bob Bussel, director of the University of Oregon’s Labor Education Research Center, which has provided resources and expertise to workers, unions, policymakers and community partners since 1977.
“I think our private sector losses have not been quite as severe as in other places, and there has been some organizing.”
Recent campaigns by several different unions have brought thousands of service workers, including child care providers, home health workers and nursing home staff, as well as 1,800 teachers at the UO, onto the union rolls.
But the rising rate of union membership as a percentage of overall employment in Oregon could be short-lived, predicts Brian Rooney, a state of Oregon labor economist.
“I think it’s safe to say that the uptick in the percentage of total employment that is union membership in Oregon is caused by nonunion job losses outpacing union job losses during the recession,” he said, after examining the federal labor bureau data.
Job losses in the public sector tend to lag losses in the private sector, Rooney said. He said he would expect the job losses in Oregon’s public sector over the past year to start bringing down the rate of union membership over the next year or two.
Although some Oregon unions, particularly those representing building trades and other sectors hardest hit by the recession, lost members, other unions have been busily signing on new members.
In the last few years, the Service Employees International Union Local 503, which has about 50,000 members, has signed on 4,000 in-home family child-care workers, 7,500 personal support workers who provide services to people with developmental disabilities, and hundreds of workers at St. Charles Medical Center in Bend, the union’s executive director, Heather Conroy, said.
The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees — which has about 25,000 members in the state, including the city of Eugene and Lane County — has brought 1,200 to 1,300 licensed child care providers onto its rolls, spokesman Don Loving said.
“There aren’t any large unorganized public employee sectors out there — probably the single-largest one is Washington County,” Loving said. So “we’ve been a little more creative in who we’ve reached out to,” he said.
The union’s biggest growth followed the passage of the Oregon Public Employee Collective Bargaining Act in 1973.
“That was a turning point,” Loving said.
More recently, Ballot Measure 99 passed in 2000, which created the Oregon Home Care Commission, and gave home care workers, who assist seniors and people with disabilities, public employees’ collective bargaining rights.
That opened the door for other workers providing publicly funded services, such as child care providers and “personal support workers,” who assist people with developmental disabilities, to bargain collectively, SEIU’s Conroy said.
She said she’s optimistic that Oregon’s labor movement will continue to grow.
“Our members have made a commitment to set aside a portion of our budget to focus on organizing,” Conroy said.
Regardless of where the rate of union membership ultimately ends up in the next few years, Oregon labor leaders say unions now have a higher profile because of recent organizing campaigns.
“We’ve seen a lot of interest from workers who had never thought about organizing in their workplaces as they’ve seen unionized workplaces having more say in what happens in their workplace during the recession,” said Elana Guiney, Oregon AFL-CIO spokeswoman.
“I think the recession has also shown the relevance of unions to younger workers, where younger workers hadn’t seen that relevance before.”
Oregon AFL-CIO has 130,000 members in a range of industries, public and private, in Oregon.
Despite a loss of some members in the hard-hit building and construction trades, the union’s ranks have has managed to stay pretty steady, Guiney said.
An organizing campaign that drew attention earlier this year close to home was at the UO. United Academics of the University of Oregon, which is affiliated with American Association of University Professors and the American Federation of Teachers, was certified in April to represent 1,800 teachers, researchers and postdoctoral scholars .
The campaign, which began before the recession hit, was prompted by a desire by teachers to have a more cohesive, organized voice for higher education in Oregon, and for their students, said David Cecil, labor relations specialist with AFT-Oregon.
They organized partly in reaction to the lack of state funding and scarce resources, he said.
“If you don’t have a strong, organized voice, then you’re really just hoping that someone else will take care of you.”
The group is working on ideas for bargaining proposals, which the union hopes to take to the bargaining table this fall, he said.