Oregon workers fight unemployment, cutbacks

The jobless rate in the western region of the U.S. surged to 10.1 percent in May and Oregon topped the list at 12.4 percent with California close behind at 11.5 percent and Nevada at 11.3 percent. Washington State’s jobless rate virtually matched the national rate 9.4 percent.

Workers and their allies in Oregon are beginning to fight back. “United for Oregon,” a coalition initiated by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503 staged a march of several thousand union members and community activists through downtown Portland Sunday June 7 to protest $2 billion in budget cutbacks in the Oregon State budget.

It would have forced the layoff of thousands of state and local employees who provide vital health, social service, and public safety programs across the state.

Edward Hershey, a spokesperson for Local 503 told the World, “We beat back two proposals in a draft budget that would have substantially cut home health care programs. We represent home health care workers,” he said. “We also defeated cutbacks in employment-based day care for low-income workers. The state subsidizes day care for the children of these workers. In both instances the people who would have suffered—lost their jobs—are the working poor, most of them women.”

He said the sustained mobilization saved an estimated 6,000 to 8,000 jobs. The coalition waged a successful fight to increase taxes on corporations and the rich to close an estimated $4 billion shortfall in tax revenues in Oregon over the next two years. “We have worked hard to encourage increased revenues,” he said.

“Successful corporations in Oregon pay as little as $10 a year in taxes. We have increased taxes on the wealthiest Oregonians, families with incomes at or above $250,000 a year.” He said these long-overdue tax reforms would increase revenues by about $1 billion. SEIU, he said, also agreed to belt tightening to help close the gap.

Some of the proposed cutbacks would have meant losing millions in federal Medicaid matching funds. “Oregon was the first state to win a waiver that allows us to use Medicaid funds for community use,” he said. “The federal government provides matching funds at a better than two-to-one rate,” he said. It made it easier to convince legislators how foolhardy it would be not to allocate the state’s share. “So 6,000 jobs were saved and we are ecstatic about that. But it means we exerted an extraordinary effort just to preserve the status quo.” Oregon is still saddled with the second highest jobless rate behind Michigan, he said. “These are not the best of times. But these are times when unions are most necessary. God knows where we would be without us.” The Oregon Apollo Alliance is campaigning to bring “good jobs, green jobs” to the state. Elana Guiney, a spokesperson for the Oregon AFL-CIO told the World the labor movement and the environmental movement have joined forces to “attract green jobs to Oregon. We’re trying to make sure that the jobs created are good jobs, union jobs, permanent jobs that provide a living wage that can support families,” she told the World.

She said the unemployment crisis in Oregon is compounded by a large influx of newcomers attracted to Oregon but without jobs. “Senior citizens are moving here, watching their retirement income dry up and reentering the job market,” she said. “When the economy is down, the state budget dries up and the first thing some legislators do is look for programs to cut. We need to make sure that we are not adding to the unemployment by laying off state workers who provide vital services, needed especially when times are hard.” Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski told reporters at a Salem news conference June 11 “We have a jobs emergency in Oregon.” He urged the legislature to pass HB-3500 his Oregon Emergency Jobs and Training Act to benefit 20,000 unemployed workers in the state. Currently, he said, there are 86,000 Oregonians out of work. His bill would create 7,100 entry-level jobs paying $8.40 to $10.00 an hour restoring wetlands, trail maintenance, park construction, and removing brush from fire-prone forests. It would also extend Unemployment Insurance (UI) benefits for 11,000 long-term unemployed. The $90 million to pay for the program would come from a reprogramming of money from the UI Trust Fund. An aide to the governor told the World the bill is still pending in committee.