by Melissa Unger, Executive Director, and Mike Powers, President, SEIU Local 503
What a year. We can’t remember a time when our union faced so many challenges or when we’ve been more inspired by the dedication and hard work of SEIU 503 members. Whether we are caring for the elderly during a pandemic, fighting wildfires, or keeping Oregon’s public services running, SEIU 503 members are essential.
Next year, our focus will be on the I Am Essential campaign. 2020 demonstrated how important we are to Oregon. In turn, we deserve fair contracts, to be treated with respect, to be listened to, and to be safe. In short: Pay us. Protect us. Respect us. All SEIU members – whether we are white, Black or brown, rural or urban, old or young – are an essential part of what makes Oregon work.
This year has been enormously difficult. SEIU 503 members have lost their jobs, been stricken by the COVID-19 virus, or lost their loved ones to wildfire. Yet through this heartbreak and challenge, we have been inspired by stories of perseverance and heroism. Here are a few examples:
- Keeping people safe. In the early days of the pandemic, before the State or many private companies were able to get their act together, SEIU 503 members distributed nearly 2,000 PPE kits to help workers do their essential jobs safely. SEIU in Oregon and in D.C. worked hard to secure much needed financial support, paid leave and telework flexibility for working families.
- Helping members in need. SEIU 503 members gave out more than $250,000 in cash assistance to other members who were financially impacted by COVID 19. We also gave out more than $130,000 in cash assistance to members financially impacted by the wildfires.
- Protecting jobs and income. We signed emergency letters of agreement – like short-term contracts – with employers across the state to protect our jobs, protect our safety, and maintain our income and benefits during the pandemic.
- Recommitting to racial justice. The SEIU 503 Board of Directors voted to support Black-led organizations in Oregon in days following the murder of George Floyd. Our union has long held a commitment to support Black and brown communities, both within our union membership and around the state, and we are proud to reaffirm that commitment in 2020.
- Advocated for ourselves. Union members across Oregon pushed employers to do the right thing during COVID. Whether that was fighting for telework at the Employment Department, protecting healthcare people who lost their jobs at Universities, expanding Paid Time Off (PTO) for homecare workers and nursing home workers, or making sure public employees could use the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) to take care of their children.
Time and time again we are reminded that together we are stronger than we are alone. And in the midst of these crises, SEIU members still had time to break new ground on projects that made our union stronger.
- State employees launched a new Contract Specialist program, which allows a group of employees to spend a year helping other SEIU members with contract issues. This was a major expansion of the representation we receive on the job!
- Homecare and personal support workers launched Oregon Saves, a new retirement program, and won a 5% raise to cover the cost of saving for the future.
- Nursing home workers organized like never before, taking actions at dozens of homes across the state and building momentum toward their next big contract negotiations in 2021.
- More than 10,000 SEIU members took the I Am Essential bargaining surveys, kicking off the most democratic and member-driven bargaining campaign in memory.
That’s just the tip of the iceberg. Our union moved into a new building in Portland, completed the first (and probably last) virtual General Council, launched a public service campaign to support people who lost their jobs this spring, and there’s still more. We don’t have room to name it all.
When you look back at it all, it’s so inspiring. We are certain that the best is yet to come. In 2021, we will make sure everyone knows that SEIU 503 members are essential, and we will demand the respect that we deserve for the hard work and sacrifices we made in 2020.