Organization, mobilization, & education lead to contract improvements for Oregon state workers

Oregon state employees, members of SEIU Local 503, ratified a tentative agreement with the state on August 17.

The agreement, which covers 19,000 employees in agencies that provide health and human services, highway maintenance, employment, and other services, wins back some of the concessions that the union was forced to accept when the state was facing a revenue shortfall in 2009.

Democratic governor John Kitzhaber was seeking more concessions from the workers, including an end to the state’s practice of paying the 6 percent share of employees’ contribution to their pension plan, or the 6 percent pick up as it is known.

State employees in July had overwhelmingly voted to authorize a strike vote if a fair agreement could not be reached, and the union conducted an intensive mobilization and education campaign among members during the negotiations.

Local 503 members who work for Oregon’s state universities are still in negotiations with their employers and will soon vote on their own strike authorization vote.

In addition to maintaining the 6 percent pick up, the newly ratified agreement between Local 503 members and the Oregon Department of Administrative Services ends unpaid furloughs that the state won in the previous contract negotiations, maintains the state’s 95 percent contribution toward employees’ healthcare premiums and creates a path to increase that rate to 97 percent, maintains a $40 a month subsidy that helps lower paid employees pay their share of the health care premium, provides step increases for those denied them as the result of the 2009 contract, and provides for a 3.5 percent cost of living raise over the two years of the contract.

In June, the union was forced to declare an impasse when negotiations broke down between the two sides.

After declaring an impasse, the union conducted a series of mobilizations to show state management that its members were ready to strike if necessary.

A group of 40 self-described super-activist union members called “The Flying Squadron” travelled throughout the state to local worksites to help workers organize media events, demonstrations, and other actions aimed at demonstrating solidarity and determination.

More than 3,500 members took part in these local actions.

In addition to demanding a fair contract, the local actions also brought attention to the role that Wall Street played in causing the recession that reduced state revenue, which in turn led to cuts in state services. The actions also called for an end to corporate tax loopholes.

While bargaining was in progress, the union posted frequent bargaining updates on its website to keep members well informed about the issues being negotiated.

“We won because thousands of members like you engaged in the most serious strike preparations since the 1995 strike, and by taking our issues to the public and straight to management via rallies, pickets, press events and more,” read a post by the union announcing the ratification vote. “We also won because thousands more have engaged in making our political program strong–via contributing to CAPE, participating in lobby days, and helping get out the vote for pro-worker candidates–so we could have a state budget that was sufficient to fund our contract.”

Local 503 has used a similar strategy as it continues to negotiate a new contract for university employees.

“The many member calls, the demonstrations, email messages, purple ups, and delegations to management had an effect,” said a posting by the union’s negotiating committee. It caused university management to back down on concessions sought on layoffs, overtime, and seniority rights. Management also agreed to strengthen protections against privatizing work done by university employees.

But the two sides remain far apart on key issues such as wages and other concessions that the universities are seeking.

As a result, the union has declared an impasse and will hold a strike authorization vote beginning September 9.

Local meetings around the state will be held to provide information about the negotiations and issues at stake. Members will have the opportunity to vote at these meetings or they can vote by mail.

State employees who belong to AFSCME are still in the processing of negotiating their new contract.

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