Statement by SEIU 503 Executive Director Melissa Unger:
Today is International Women’s Day and this month is Women’s History Month. For SEIU 503 members, it’s personal. Women play critical roles in our union. About 70% of our members are women. Our staff is majority women. Our staff leadership is almost entirely women. We are Oregon’s largest labor union and our state’s Care union.
SEIU 503 is what it is today because of the dedication and brilliance of women who paved the way for all of us. I want to lift up the memory of two of those groundbreaking leaders, Portia Moye and Karen Thompson. While they are no longer with us here on earth, they continue to make life better for tens of thousands of women and the people who rely on their care.
Portia Moye was an amazing leader. She was on our Board of Directors, she helped form the Childcare Local, and was President of the Childcare Local once it was formed for many years. When I first came to SEIU, she was the leader who helped guide me through our organization, always focusing on our values and how it was important to come together through our differences to fight for workers. That’s as true today as it ever was.
Just as Portia was critical in forming our Childcare Local, we would not be a Homecare union without Karen Thompson. Her courageous power helped move other care workers into action and once certified as a union, Local 99 elected Karen as their first president. I will always remember one of Karen’s favorite mottos, “No one can do everything, but everyone can do something.”
Karen’s leadership changed the lives of thousands of women in Oregon. Two decades ago, homecare workers in Oregon couldn’t join a union. They made less than minimum wage, wage theft was common, there was no health care or pathway to retirement, and career development and training were virtually nonexistent. Now, more than 37,000 homecare providers are represented by our union. We fought for and won quality, affordable healthcare through the Oregon Health Plan, a pathway to retirement through OregonSaves, training that helps keep the people we care for safe, and a starting wage of $17.77 beginning next year. That’s power.
Two years into the pandemic, we’ve seen the burdens placed on women magnified. Childcare often falls on women family members or women providers. Women essential workers must try to keep a sense of normal at home despite so many interruptions while risking their health by going to work. We are tired. We are exhausted. But we are strong.
We also recognize that all women are not treated equally. White women have advantages over Black women and other women of color. From pay to employment to housing to safety, white privilege is real, so is transphobia, and we are committed to making life better and equal for all women.
That’s what I had the honor of doing last Friday. I joined dozens of SEIU 503 members and consumers – Black, white, and brown – outside of the Oregon Capitol to demand that DHS finally pays homecare workers in full, on time, every time. We’ll keep fighting until that happens. As we begin to emerge from the pandemic, we can now gather again. And when we do, women will be in front, leading.