In what was termed a historic accomplishment, the Service Employees Union International Local 503 reached a tentative agreement with the State of Oregon at the end of August that, if ratified by its 24,000 members, could boost potential wages to $15 an hour in early 2017. The SEIC is Oregon’s largest workers union, whose members provide services for seniors and for citizens with disabilities. Since unionization 15 years ago, the SEIC has won pay raises as well as health care and workers compensation coverage for its members.
This latest “win” for the union resulted in a four-year contract rather than the previous norm of two years.
Incremental pay increases that begin Jan. 1, 2016, will boost pay from $13.75 to $14.00; in February 2017, another scheduled increase takes wages to $14.50 an hour. A certification program that is also scheduled to go into effect in 2017 could result in an hourly wage rate of $15.00.
Bargaining team members, who have been involved in late-into-the-night meetings during the negotiations, expressed the desire that this will become a model for home care workers throughout the nation. Alice Redding, a member of the team, said “It’s amazing. I was in tears when I was at the capitol.”
Another bargaining team member expressed similar sentiments the day after the agreement.
“The contract we won last night was awesome and it’ll go all over the nation,” said Phyllis Wills.
The team met with state negotiators over a period of several weeks to hammer out the agreement which includes additional provisions for paid time off and the implementation of state retirement options.
Redding noted that home care workers have previously only had social security to rely on in retirement.
“We’ve never had retirement security,” she said. “So this is a big plus for people who are still working and are younger.”
The agreement is not without its opponents, however. Earlier this month, the SEIC Union Local 503 was the target of a class action suit filed by the Freedom Foundation, a Washington state-based think tank that is opposed to required union membership. That suit is pending in federal court. The foundation recently opened an office in Salem, Oregon, in order to expand its advocacy efforts. The foundation’s goal is education about worker rights and unionization options, according to Scott Roberts, Freedom Foundation’s freedom in action director.
Eileen Ordway, another bargaining team member for the SEIC, noted that they will “have a fight on their hands.” She stated that the value of union membership is not in the dues, but in the collective voice that has the ability to effect change within the industry.
As individuals, she added, “we don’t have the kind of power that we do when we combine our voices.”
Another SEIC spokesperson stated that no worker is required to join the union, nor to pay dues, but that those workers still receive the benefits that result from contract negotiation.
“Our workers, personal support and home care, really need to have a living wage,” said Eileen Ordway, a home-care worker herself who was a member of the SEIU’s bargaining team. “Without a living wage, we have to rely on public assistance programs to make ends meet. So, we’re like any other worker,” she said. “We want to be able to sustain ourselves and our families.”