Fifteen hundred state, personal support, homecare, and public services workers came together on Monday, May 20th at a historic rally to push for fair contracts and investments in public services. Members of SEIU Local 503 from across Oregon marched through Salem and up to the steps of the Capitol Building, demanding that legislators hear the powerful voice of the workers at the heart of Oregon’s public services infrastructure.
“Oregon can work together. Labor and business, community organizations and legislators, union families and the rest of our communities, towards a common purpose. We are united for a better Oregon,” said Executive Director Melissa Unger to a crowd of SEIU members.
The rally is a part of a statewide campaign, United For A Better Oregon, targeting the underfunded and underinvested areas of Oregon’s public services, including dire situations in the Child Welfare department, underfunded schools, and the need for increased services in the homecare and personal support sector. The rally came just days after a huge victory in the passage of the Student Success Act, which raises $2 billion in revenue to fund education by taxing large corporations, and relieves pressure on the budget so we can invest in the public services our members provide.
“What does new revenue mean? It means better schools for our children and grandchildren. It means less pressure on the budget and opportunities to invest in services, from DHS to ODOT to DOJ to homecare and personal support workers to public universities and every other service provided by SEIU 503 members across the state,” says Unger.
The majority of 72,000 people who make up SEIU 503 are bargaining new contracts this year, which is why it’s so important to put pressure on legislators and management.
“I’m here today to support my brothers and sisters in the right to unite and have a better, stronger Oregon, including fighting for PERS and homecare,” says SEIU 503 homecare leader Maleta Christian. “The stronger we are, the louder we are, we can then fight for all of Oregon.”
In addition to celebrating our win on revenue, we are pushing back on a a proposal to cut the retirement of public employees, forcing down their total compensation to pay for a financial liability that they had no part in creating. For many public employees, who often make less than their private sector counterparts, the state pension system is one of the main benefits that draws them into public employment. Without that, it will be difficult to attract talented new workers and become increasingly hard to keep seasoned staff who are struggling to make ends meet on non-competitive compensation packages.
“I decided to dedicate my life to public services and I knew I wasn’t going to make as much as in the private sector, but it was worth it to me for the people of Oregon I get to help,” says Alicia, a DHS worker.
“I’m just starting my career, and the idea that my retirement could just disappear might force me into the private sector because I don’t make a lot here. That’s why I’m here today, because I really believe in this union and the people of Oregon.”
The PERS legislation, which includes a 1% to 2.5% reduction in retirement benefits, is being considered by the State Senate this week.
“I show support for my caregivers because those ladies go above and beyond, more than you could imagine for all of us,” says Margie Forgoso, a client who receives support from state homecare workers. “I support them in every step they are taking in this union.”
One of the key issues we are pushing forward on this year is a retirement plan for care providers, something we desperately need. Together we have won major victories on wages and healthcare benefits, but many homecare workers still struggle to save and plan for a secure retirement.
“I recently joined the union because I feel the members do need a fair contract this year and I am here to support that,” says new homecare worker Rebecca Leonard.
Now workers around the state are building on this momentum as contract negotiations heat up. With actions in worksites and communities around the state, we are demanding an end to stagnant wages and for state officials to address real problems that impact every member of our union.
“It’s about respect. Time and time again when I speak to SEIU members they ask what they can do to get respect,” says SEIU 503 Executive Director Melissa Unger. “Whether its an ODOT employee who wants to know why the Legislature is attacking his benefits, or a homecare worker who wants to know why they are paid late, or a university employee who wants to know why they are raising tuition and laying off coworkers — it all comes back to respect, to feeling valued. When you are on your own it often feels like you can’t get respect. That’s the beauty of our union. With 72,000 people at your back, you can demand respect!”