By: SEIU 503 President Mike Powers
Oregon’s 2021 legislative session was a rollercoaster ride. Held remotely due to the COVID pandemic, we started with a bleak economic outlook — also due to the pandemic. Fortunately, thanks to $2.6 billion in one-time federal funding through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), our state was able to make critical investments that will lift up working people in communities in every corner of our state, especially SEIU 503 members. The bottom line is that our members’ advocacy led to state agency budgets and salary pots that put us in a position to bargain for good contracts. You can read more about our big wins on traditional core union issues here. This blogpost is to lift up a few of our successes at the legislature that may not receive as much attention. These are issues I’ve been invested in throughout the course of the session, offering personal testimony and working with coalition partners to help make happen.
We came into the legislative session prepared to aggressively defend the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) and Public Employees’ Benefit Board (PEBB). ARPA funding helped prevent bad changes, but we still had to stop bills that would have impacted our benefits, as well as pass a few technical fixes.
We were also able to defeat SB 845, which would have changed the composition of the PEBB board by adding a member with a background in administering health benefit plans. This new member would have destroyed the equal number of labor and management representatives on the PEBB board, giving management a majority. Our voice on health care must remain strong.
Coming from a background in agriculture, I’ve long been aware of the impacts of climate change on farmers and rural Oregonians. When SEIU 503 members made climate justice a major priority for our union, I became active on our Climate Justice Committee and continue to be in my new role as President. Our committee led our union’s environmental justice advocacy at the legislature this year, with great success.
Legislators walked out on their commitment to Oregon to kill a major clean energy bill in 2019. In response, our union joined a coalition representing communities all over our state that are burdened by both high energy bills and pollution. The new clean energy sector will create good union jobs and clean the air in these communities.
We also helped pass HB 2475, which will help Oregon families afford their energy bills through lower energy rates for low-income residential ratepayers. We fought for HB 2842, which will make homes safer to live in and more affordable to heat and cool. And we championed SCR 17, which calls on the state legislature to adopt a vision and set of principles for achieving environmental justice in Oregon. Environmental justice is the basic principle of fair and equal treatment of all of us no matter what we look like or where we live.
And this one I am very proud of: we helped pass HB 2021, a comprehensive piece of legislation that targets 100% renewable energy by 2040 with the strongest labor provisions in the nation. This is a really big deal! This means clean energy and good jobs in communities throughout our state.
We proved that you can have good, union jobs and a thriving economy that benefits all of us. This year’s wins put our union and our state on a course for a greener, more equitable future that centers people who are directly impacted by climate change.
Bridging the rural-urban divide is one of my top priorities as SEIU 503 president. The digital divide is real and impacts our members across Oregon. The pandemic clearly showed how big the gap is; many people who don’t have access to reliable broadband and internet services struggled with telework, remote school, and more during a dangerous public health crisis.
The Oregon Business Development Department received $120 million in ARPA funding for the “Broadband Fund” to develop a grant program to support communities in building broadband infrastructure. Various communities are also receiving grants to expand broadband infrastructure via ARPA, including Polk and Yamhill Counties, and the cities of Sherwood, Springfield, Creswell, and Eugene. Additional funds will also be allocated to school districts to improve broadband infrastructure through Lottery Bonds. This significant investment in infrastructure will help bring us together as union members and Oregonians.
Despite some turbulence and a lot of learning as we went, 2021 was a tremendous year for SEIU 503 members at the legislature. The federal ARPA completely changed the session from discussing deep cuts to making historic investments. A better than expected economy helped state agency funding and salary pots, and put our members in position to win strong contracts. In addition, we were able to really move the needle on climate justice, addressing the digital divide, and protecting member benefits. Let’s hope we never find ourselves in a similar situation, but feel proud that we remained in solidarity, fought hard, and won on so many key fronts.