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Latest News - April 2012

April 9, 2012
More workers joining unions

Oregon is one of the top states in the country when it comes to union membership, with more people joining unions here each year, according to figures recently released by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Experts say efforts by Service Employees International Union Local 503 — the largest union in the state — account for much of that success in the face of national apathy, if not outright hostility, toward organized labor.

Union members represent 17.1 percent of all workers in Oregon, making it the state with the seventh-highest union participation in the nation. Average union membership in the United States is 11.8 percent.

Oregon’s union membership has been steadily growing during the past five years. In 2006, about 211,000 Oregonians belonged to a union. That number by last year had increased to an estimated 270,000 union members .

“It is a striking figure,” said Bob Bussel, an associate professor and director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon.

Bussel thinks most of the increase can be attributed to efforts by SEIU to organize workers in home health care and nursing care.

“Oregon has been one of the pioneering places where people involved in health care were granted the right to unionize,” Bussel said. “There’s certainly some new organizing and new people brought in within those sectors. That’s been a real bright spot, as far as union growth.”

SEIU Local 503 Executive Director Heather Conroy estimates her union now represents nearly one-third of the workers in Oregon nursing homes. Overall, SEIU’s membership has doubled during the past decade, and now stands at 52,000.

It also hasn’t hurt that the political climate in Oregon has continued to support workers’ rights to organize, Bussel said.

“We certainly have not seen the frontal types of assaults on unions or their bargaining rights that we saw in some Midwest states that had been union bastions,” he said.

Elana Guiney, spokeswoman for Oregon AFL-CIO, added that it may not be coincidental that the rise in Oregon union membership has coincided with the economic crisis .

“Our membership has been growing since the start of the recession,” Guiney said. “We notice a lot more interest. We’ve gotten a lot more calls from people interested in organizing since the recession started.”

But is all this union membership a good thing for the state economy?

Bussel thinks so.

“I think it’s a public benefit because it’s clearly proven from all the research that people who bargain about their wages, hours and working conditions do better than people comparably based who don’t,” he said.

The money those folks earn tends to quickly re-enter the economy as they spend it, creating a multiplier effect that benefits just about everyone, Bussel said.

“In other places, there’s a race to the bottom mentality where you cut and cut and slash and slash, and you end up with people making so little they need public assistance,” he said. “They aren’t able to contribute much of anything to the economy, because their jobs are gone or their wages have dwindled.”




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