A strike wave is heading for Lane County after Labor Day this year — and that can be a good thing.
Preparing for a strike and participating in one, if necessary, can empower workers who experience the value of collective action. Successful strikes can also show non-union workers that there is an alternative to taking whatever their employers are willing to dish out. And when strike threats or strikes win higher wages and benefits, the local economy improves.
Thousands of local workers may walk off the job this fall. Classified employees at McKenzie-Willamette Hospital, represented by SEIU Local 49 have voted 99 percent to strike if their employer won’t agree to a fair contract. The former community hospital is now owned by Quorum Health, a for-profit corporation based in Tennessee.
Quorum, owner of 26 hospitals in 14 states, is refusing to match wages paid at nonprofit PeaceHealth, the other major hospital in this labor market. Hospital management is demanding that the 400 union workers pay 21 percent more in health insurance premiums. Local 49 members working for Kaiser-Permanente in Oregon and southwest Washington approved strike action that would affect the company’s location in Eugene.
The University of Oregon faces strike threats from thousands of classified staff and graduate student teachers and researchers.
And grocery store workers, including 1,600 who work at Albertson’s, Safeway and Fred Meyer in Lane County, voted to strike as well.
Organized workers’ ultimate leverage is the threat to withhold their labor. Few enterprises can operate for long without their regular employees. Hiring strikebreakers is expensive and usually results in less productivity and community resentment. Individual employees have the right to quit if they are not satisfied with employment conditions, of course, but they are replaceable, one at a time, and unlike strikers have no rights to get their jobs back. Most union contract negotiations are resolved before a strike, but the threat is always there.
Like most states, Oregon is “employment at will.” That means without a personal service or union contract you can be fired for any non-discriminatory reason — or none at all.
Employees have few rights on the job. The Constitution does not apply in private sector workplaces. The Bill of Rights only protects us against government action. Employers are free to restrict our speech, assembly and other rights while on their property. Individual employees have no bargaining power unless they have special talents or abilities or are favored by their boss. But bosses can change, and it’s not hard to fall out of favor.
Organized labor, on the other hand, has much more negotiating leverage. A recent study by the UO’s Labor Education and Research Center, “The Union Advantage,” analyzed 2017 data from Oregon. It found that unions “raise wages, improve health and pension benefits, reduce income inequality and significantly decrease racial and gender inequalities.” These results are “consistent with other national and state-level research.”
Being covered by a union contract adds an average of $4,701 per year to each Oregon worker’s annual income. The study estimates that unions increased the overall income of working Oregonians by almost $1.4 billion. Union workers are 17.5 percent more likely to get health insurance through their jobs and are 41 percent more likely to have an employer-provided retirement plan. They are also much less likely to have family members who rely on public safety net programs.
Women benefit even more. Male union workers in Oregon average 10 percent more in wages than non-union, but women union workers make 23 percent more. White union members, male and female, make 13 percent more while union workers of color make 16 percent more. Average hourly union wages outside the Portland metro area, including Lane County, are 23 percent higher than non-union.
This week after Labor Day, let’s remember the union advantage and do what we can to support and join labor organizations. And let’s remember words spoken by Abraham Lincoln in 1860: “I am glad to know that there is a system of labor where the laborer can strike if he [sic] wants to!”
Stefan Ostrach is a retired AFSCME and Teamsters union representative. He serves on the steering committee of Oregon Working Families Party.