After years of painful backsliding, the state workers of Oregon’s largest union, SEIU 503, recently stood firm and scored a big win in their contract negotiations against the state’s anti-union Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber.
After again demanding many anti-union concessions, Oregon’s Democratic governor backed down when the union proved organized and ready to wage a statewide strike, which would have shut down many state-run agencies, including highway repair, Department of Motor Vehicles, Parks and Recreation, food stamps, the Employment Department, Child Welfare, Department of Revenue, and others.
SEIU 503 is a union of 50,000 plus members, the core of which consists of Oregon public employees. On paper the union looked impressive after having expanded its membership in mostly non-public areas, including private home-health care.
But the union’s power had been hollowed out in preceding years, due to successive Democratic governors demanding concessionary contracts from the state workers, who pay most of the union’s dues while having the most cohesive work units and political power.
SEIU 503 had suffered from a disease that— if left untreated— was potentially fatal: concessionary bargaining. Consequently, with each new contract wages were lowered, members’ health care contributions increased, and the governor continued to demand that public employees be blamed for the budget deficits caused by the recession that the banks triggered and the lowering of taxes on corporations.
The life force of the union was being sucked dry by years of weak contracts, and eventually many members began to question why they were paying dues to a union that appeared incapable of protecting their wages and benefits. Morale was low. Hope for the union’s future — and its members’ livelihood — started to dim.
Sensing blood, a variety of right-wing funded organizations and politicians were preparing the anti-union deathblow, with ballot measures — like “right to work” legislation — that intend to decapitate unions in Oregon, as happened in Wisconsin and elsewhere.
But after this big win, SEIU 503 is in a better position to defend itself against these right-wing attacks, and in a better bargaining position for contract negotiations next time, since members will want to expand on their momentum to regain the losses they’ve incurred in recent contracts.
This win required that the union out-muscle nearly every politician in the state, who all lined up to vote against the union. The Democrats, who control Oregon’s House and Senate, co-authored a bill that illegally attacked the pensions of current and future retirees (a bill the union is challenging in court). After this treachery was passed, the Oregon Democrats pushed for yet another anti-pension bill, which they called a “grand bargain” — raising minimal taxes on the wealthy in exchange for even more pension cuts. The Grand Bargain failed by one vote, although the Democratic Governor has announced he will pursue it again in a special session.
Many — if not most — of these Democrats were supported by Oregon labor unions and they proceeded immediately to stab unions in the back. Oregon Democrats are now parroting the longstanding Republican propaganda that blames unions for the state’s budget problems.
The Democrats now look at organized labor through the same anti-union lens of the Republicans; the budget was to be balanced on the backs of public employees while the bigbanks and corporations — who caused the recession — were given new tax breaks.
For example, the Democratic governor called the Democratic-controlled legislature into “special session” exclusively to give NIKE a special tax break, which of course will be expanded to other corporations in Oregon. This is happening at the same time that the Democrats and Republicans — and their associated media mouthpieces — both pour blame on unions for the bad economy, which tends to drive public perception against unions.
Oregon’s anti-union, pro-corporation dynamic is not unique. Since the start of the Great Recession, the Democrats nationwide have veered even sharper to the right in regards to labor — what little difference remains between Democrats and Republicans over unions is now a matter of degrees within a shared, bi-partisan ideology.
Although Republicans have wanted to institute anti-union laws like “Right to Work,” the Democrats have helped to weaken these unions and made them vulnerable to such attacks — the old one-two knockout punch combination. Strong unions that bargain strong contracts are less vulnerable to Republican attacks.
It’s undoubtedly true that the Democrats rightward political drift is, in part, the byproduct of a labor movement that refuses to hold them accountable for their actions. In Oregon, for example, the current Democratic governor, John Kitzhaber, had previously proved himself an enemy of organized labor when, in 1995, SEIU 503 went on a statewide strike against him.
When Kitzhaber re-entered politics in 2010, SEIU 503 and the other unions agreed to back him on a “lesser of two evils” basis, regardless of his public statements that aimed at “curbing pension costs” and other anti-union, Republican-inspired rhetoric. When the Democrats co-authored the anti-pension bill, instead of publicly denouncing it the unions were mostly quiet, a response that empowered the Democrats to double down later for a Grand Bargain. Passivity doesn’t stop your political foes, but invites more aggression.
The key lesson in SEIU’s recent victory was that the union proved it was not dependent on Democratic politicians for favors; unions have an independent power completely separate from politicians, expressed most strongly through their ability to mobilize the membership for a strike.
SEIU 503 defeated the concessions demanded by the governor by organizing strike petitions in the worksites, staging statewide worksite actions, organizing numerous regional membership meetings to discuss bargaining proposals and strategy, phone banking members to educate and elicit feedback, and holding statewide in-person strike votes that resulted in a strong “yes” from the membership, further empowering the bargaining team. Because of these and other actions the governor backed down and the membership now has their first contract victory in years with zero concessions, wage increases, as well as protections against privatization and other improvements in working conditions.
Now, many within SEIU 503 are re-thinking their relationship with the Democrats. Most members now realize that the Democrats are transitioning from “fair weather friends” to outright enemies; and most union members do not want to dedicate their time or money for their political enemies, whether or not the enemy is considered a “lesser evil.”
Unions in Oregon have already started “candidate schools” for members interested in running for public office. And although laudable, this small step towards political independence must be accompanied by a larger investment from all unions toward creating a political party to represent working people with the resources and organizational ability to challenge the two-party system once and for all.
Shamus Cooke is a social service worker and an elected officer of SEIU 503. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org