State workers march in front of the state Capitol Thursday. More than 1,000 people attended the event, organized by the Service Employees International Union 503, to urge action on better pay for workers. (Photo by Ben Botkin/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

The union that represents more than 22,000 state government employees on Thursday asked its members to commit to a potential strike as negotiations continue for a new contract.

Service Employees International Union Local 503, which represents about half the state workforce, is behind that push and negotiating for a new contract for state workers. The union announced the move in a rally with more than 1,000 workers across from the state Capitol. Meanwhile, inside the Capitol, Republican senators on strike kept the Senate from working on Thursday, as they have since May 3. 

The union’s plan for workers to sign a “strike pledge” and commit to a possible walkout underscores unhappiness about wages and raises as negotiations proceed for a new two-year contract to succeed the agreement that expires on June 30. The action does not mean that there will be a strike, but the step is necessary if the union wants to authorize one.

Workers and the state are far apart on proposals. The union wants an 11% cost-of-living pay increase for the first year of the contract, and a 9% cost-of-living increase in the second year. The state’s proposal is a 4.4% increase for the first year and a 2.3% increase for the second year.

For now, state workers are getting out the word at rallies like Thursday’s, planning pickets and holding out hope they will get a new contract with raises that catch up to soaring inflation. State workers received a 3.1% cost-of-living increase last August, less than half the roughly 8% calculated rate of inflation. 

“After a worldwide pandemic, after high inflation, our pay is too low to survive with dignity, let alone recruit and retain workers,” SEIU Local 503 President Mike Powers told a fired-up group of state workers, many of them holding signs urging the state to give them acceptable raises.

The workers serve Oregonians in different ways. They run snow plows and maintain highways for the Oregon Department of Transportation, process applications for food and housing benefits for low-income Oregonians and care for patients at Oregon State Hospital, the state-run psychiatric residential facility.

Yet the state struggles at times to fill positions, increasing workloads and stress for workers. A SEIU study found more than 8,500 state positions, about one in five, were vacant in April. In 2022, more than 4,300 state positions were vacant for more than six months – and $610 million the state budgeted to pay those nonexistent workers went unspent or was used by agencies for other purposes.

As a result, union leaders are warning the state of a growing crisis.

“We need management and legislators to step up and deal with the state workforce crisis that’s happening now before it gets worse,” said Austin Folnagy, the union’s co-chair of the state bargaining team.

His co-chair, Ibrahim Coulibaly, led the crowd in cheers. “When we fight,” he said, as the group responded: “We win.”

The crowd marched around the state Capitol building, clasping signs that said; “We make Oregon work” and “Pass a budget.”

That fight is just beginning, said Melissa Unger, the union’s executive director.

Unger told the crowd that workers can go on strike and not show up for work too – as some senators are doing. The union plans to keep pushing for what workers need, Unger said.

“We’re going to fight like hell to get it,” Unger said to cheers.

In interviews with the Capital Chronicle, state employees said the situation is dire and they live paycheck-to-paycheck.

“If we don’t start offering wages people can live off of, we’re never going to have a vibrant social safety net that really is needed during those tough times,” said Anthony Borges, a 33-year-old in Portland.

Borges is a benefits and eligibility worker for the Oregon Department of Human Services and helps people apply for social services including food assistance and programs that care for the elderly and disabled.

He held a sign that said: “Living check to check sucks!”

Borges said his take home pay is about $2,200 a month. At the end of each month, his bank account is empty.

“I’m living in basically the cheapest, crappiest apartment I could find,” he said. “I only eat one to two meals a day. I have several undiagnosed medical conditions simply because I can’t afford things as simple as co-pays for doctor’s visits.”

The situation is similar for state workers outside Portland. Alexander Malloy, 38, is a family coach for the Oregon Department of Human Services who helps families sign up for social services in Josephine County. His rent in Grants Pass went up 10% last year, he said, far more than the cost–of-living increase he received.

Currently, his take-home pay is about $2,800 a month and his rent takes up about half of that.

“What they’re offering so far is yet another kick in the face,” he said. “They keep asking us to do more with less and it’s getting to a breaking point now to where I can’t even afford to live in my own community.”

Oregon Capital Chronicle

Oregon Capital Chronicle is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity. Oregon Capital Chronicle maintains editorial independence. Contact Editor Lynne Terry for questions: Follow Oregon Capital Chronicle on Facebook and Twitter.

Ben Botkin covers justice, health and social services issues for the Oregon Capital Chronicle. He has been a reporter since 2003, when he drove from his Midwest locale to Idaho for his first journalism job. He has written extensively about politics and state agencies in Idaho, Nevada and Oregon. Most recently, he covered health care and the Oregon Legislature for The Lund Report.