You have to wonder where Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski is coming from sometimes.
Most State workers working in Department of Administrative Services (DAS) units will see a tenth step added on to their salary schedules on June 30, 2009. The bottom steps will also disappear at that time. This is essentially a selective salary increase for these workers done at the least cost possible for the State: workers in the middle ranges of the salary schedule will not see an immediate benefit, but low-wage and topped-out workers will see unexpected raises in 2009. Not covered are people working in higher education and state workers not employed in the DAS units. Money to fund this raise will come out of the next biennium's budget and, I believe, from agency budgets--the current state worker wage and benefit fund is not affected. Read about it at the Local 503 website and the Oregon AFSCME website.
The anticipated attack on the Governor for signing off on this deal by the media and by the far right has not yet materialized. Labor's friends in the legislature will have to defend the pay raise and budget for it. In a certain sense, then, these contracts do not cost the Governor anything politically or in the budget.
SEIU-represented state workers had voted to accept their relatively good union contracts when the Governor announced raises for state department heads and managers last summer. Anger at these raises by rank and file SEIU union members was muted, perhaps because their contracts contained good raises and held the line, for the most part, on health insurance. There was also hope then among the SEIU-represented state workers that the agreed-to clerical worker classification study would address inequities in the salary package and help some of the most exploited workers. That study now seems almost dead in the water. AFSCME-represented workers were still in negotiations and anger among the AFSCME-represented workers was more pronounced. A Salem AFSCME-organized rally last week gave expression to this anger. Unfortunately, AFSCME rallied alone and without other unions supporting their efforts. About one-half of the state worker AFSCME units voted down the state's contract offer at that point, in large part because of anger over the raises given to department heads and managers.
Adding the tenth step and doing away with the bottom steps essentially creates a per centage parity in raises between front-line managers and union-represented state workers over time and possibly creates moree unity for workers in all state worker unions.
Higher ed workers were not included in the deal because higher ed managers did not receive the wage increases their state-employed counterparts did and so the union parity argument is more difficult to make in higher ed. Funding such a raise in higher ed would realistically mean a tuition increase which the state is unwilling and unprepared to push for and which most higher ed workers probably don't want to see happen either. The unions are not strong enough at this point to take on the issue of the top-heavy bureaucracy which exists in Oregon's higher ed units and the state doesn't want to raise the issue or cut these unnecessary positions as a way of funding raises for union-represented workers. State higher ed workers can hope and work for catch-up raises in 2009. This may put pressure on the system to reunite DAS and higher education or this may further divide state and higher ed workers and become an argument, however wrong-headed, to continue the dissolution of a unified higher ed system in Oregon.
Neither union involved has yet addressed the strong possibility that contract bargaining is likely to take place during a serious and deepening recession, making needed wage increases and holding on to healthcare benefits particularly difficult. It is also likely, or at least quite possible, that state worker unions will lose their ability to collect political contributions and do political organizing in that environment. A ballot measure sponsored by the Mannix-Sizemore forces aimed at knocking out state worker union political contributions and organizing is favored to win in 2008.
As the political field for Oregon state workers is shaping up, a number of races will give workers the choices between moderate and progressive Democrats with Republicans pulling back from certain key races entirely. Many union members will be running in the coming elections, in fact. Conservative forces in the Democratic Party are recruiting their candidates in areas where doing so may threaten some possible progressive victories. We will see more official union support for centrist Republicans in 2008, opportunistic support for Ben Westlund and perhaps a union surrender on beating Gordon Smith. There will certainly be an attempted Republican resurgence in 2010 and 2012 in Oregon. Thinking nationally, then, we will have to hope that the politically-driven union organizing campaigns now taking place in North Carolina, Colorado and Wyoming will be successful and counter possible Republican gains in Oregon in those years.
The MacPherson run for Attorney General will be challenging for state workers because he led the charge against Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) benefits and will likely make a run for Governor in 2010 if he wins the AG race in 2008. The Mannix forces will be pushing to build three new prisons in the state at the expense of people's services and funding union contracts. The fragile union presence in state corrections units could shatter as the right pushes against union political organizing and for the three prisons.
The race for State Treasurer brings with it additional challenges and complications. Unlike most other states, the State Treasurer here invests centralized PERS funds so that the funds themselves have acquired some economic force and so that investment decisions are especially politicized. It stands to reason that the right will eventually take this on as an issue and either push into the AG and Treasurer races or seek to pressure candidates for these offices. A divided labor movement could unintentionally give them that victory.
Union officials unfortunately tend to view immigram worker rights as a wedge or distracting issue being used to take members' attention away from other core issues. The rank and file, meanwhile, is divided on this issue and needs leadership here that is not obviously apparent. We would prefer to see this become a core union issue, I think, and prefer to see unions orient towards organizing immigrant workers and making this a front-line civil rights issue even if it means sacrificing some other possible gains temporarily. A test will come this week at the rules hearings. We hope that the raises did not come in exchange for practical silence on immigration issues, but that possibility should not be discounted yet.
For SEIU, the core issues in 2008 will be universal healthcare and cost containment, stopping contracting out, long-term care for seniors and the disabled and stopping attempts to kill union political organizing. The union is unable to directly take on the insurance industry and win on single-payer healthcare and there are, as of now, no political allies on the contracting out fight. The union will partner with the long-term care industry and AARP--suspect allies, to say the least--on how to stop low-income seniors and the disabled from being hustled into the nursing homes. This strategy plays one part of the capitalist class against another, might negatively affect the non-union sector of the nursing home industry and win the unions some popular support. It might also backfire and end in disastrous class collaboration and make union organizing in the nursing homes more difficult over time. SEIU now represents at least 22 nursing homes in Oregon; the latest home to go union went union through a union-boss partnership and card check.
The just-won state worker raises need to be seen in this roughly-drawn political context. The questions are not whether these raises will or will not be wiped out by inflation, or whether they were given in a top-down way to insure silence or buy labor peace at a critical time for Democrats regionally, but whether or not workers can hold on to these gains and build on them between now and 2012.