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The Next Big Labor Strike Hits Oregon

Some 5,000 union workers from the state's university system are scheduled to walk out on Monday.

Bartosz Brzezinski/Flickr

Just over a century ago, the city of Seattle went on strike. Some 25,000 workers walked out of their jobs and hit the streets, joining another 35,000 shipyard workers who had already been called out. For five days, nothing moved but the tide in the Puget Sound. The citywide action marked the first general strike of the twentieth century; it was also one of the last (save for Oakland, California, which mounted admirable if short-lived efforts in 1946 and 2011). The ensuing decades of post-WWI labor unrest, mass strike actions, and pitched battles between workers and bosses created a powerful modern legacy of widespread working-class organizing and robust political thought on the American left. (A real, live socialist even ran for president—five times.)

The Great Depression and America’s 1941 entry into WWII posed some complicated challenges to this legacy, as labor militance took a back seat at times of national emergency. And the passage of the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947 struck a major blow against the kind of solidarity strikes that had proved indispensable in earlier mass actions. Since then, the idea of a general strike has mostly faded into nostalgic revery and wishful fantasy amid the dismal conditions of rampaging late capitalist inequality and plutocratic exploitation, as labor organizers battle the collapse of basic wage and job protections. But what’s happening in Oregon right now just might change that.

On Monday, September 30, following a breakdown in months-long contract negotiations, 5,000 workers at all seven Oregon state universities will walk out. Unlike previous strikes convened under the activist #RedforEd initiative, this action involves the “classified staff”—educational support workers who are paid an hourly rate instead of a salary and whose duties follow a regular routine. These workers are represented by SEIU Local 503; as organizer Shane Burley says, their ranks include “everything from custodians and food service to legal and academic counseling to healthcare workers and engineers and agricultural workers and scientists,” as well as grounds and building maintenance, student registration and financial aid assistance, IT, and tech support.

This kind of campus-wide organizing reflects the growing shift toward rank-and-file unionism within the #RedforEd movement. For example, at Iowa’s Grinnell College, student workers attempted to expand the existing dining service workers union to cover all student employees in 2018; that same year, students at New York City’s New School occupied the cafeteria in solidarity with Unite Here Local 100 cafe workers.

Now, the Oregon university support staff are taking an industrial approach more in line with the “one big union” organizing model of the Industrial Workers of the World than the trade unionist model long pursued by the AFL-CIO.

“The classified staff are just as essential to a successful university education [as teachers],” Burley explains. “And so they are equally a part of this wave of unionism, and they are sticking with their union as a way of taking collective action to improve the educational system. And they are being supported by both faculty and students who see this as a common fight.” As Nick Fisher, a graduate student in the anthropology department at Oregon State University, told an SEIU organizer, “It’s important to support our classified staff or this university is just going to fall apart.”

The strike has also drawn support from a number of other unions and political organizations. Burley says that SEIU Local 503 expects that the American Federation of Teachers, the American Association of University Professors, and the Teamsters will support the university workers’ striking, and even join them on the picket line. That show of solidarity has the potential to bring the entire state school system to a halt.

“Faculty and other employees on campus rely heavily on the classified staff and they will be getting regular support by having their employees join the picket line, refuse to do ‘classified’ work that is the responsibility of employees on strike, and by participating in various union solidarity events,” Burley says. “They have been a crucial support in the success, and it shows why building bridges with community and labor organizations is a key factor in whether or not a union campaign is successful.”

“Our unions brothers and sisters have committed to standing strong with us in our contract fight and should we strike, they will be there for us,” explains Rob Fulmer, the higher education bargaining chair for contract negotiations and an IT worker at Portland State University. “Other unions in Oregon are also taking a stand right now. Working people have had enough.”

The state university workers’ most pressing complaints center on low wages and a lack of dignity at work. The pay disparities alone are shocking. About half of these workers earn less than $40,000 per year (and hundreds make less than $25,000). Meanwhile, university presidents’ annual salaries average out to $500,000 and four university athletics coaches are pulling down a cool $1 million. While school administrators enjoy six-figure salaries and overall administrative spending continues to bloat, one in six classified staffers qualify for food stamps.

As Alejandro Segurra, another IT worker at Portland State University, said, “I’m willing to go on strike because I don’t think it’s fair that people are paid wages that don’t allow them to live in the city that they serve.” Portland State library worker Theresa Stapleburg was even more direct: “I want to strike because I’ve been here 24 years, and I need a raise—a living wage.”

As inflation climbs and the cost of living in Oregon soars, these workers are being left to flounder, and management has shown little sympathy for their plight. Contract negotiations that began in February broke down in mid-August. At that point, the bosses had laid out some particularly egregious proposals—a paltry cost-of-living increase, a denial of seniority demands from long-term university workers, and a price hike for staff meals—that workers saw as disrespectful, and even cruel. “There is an unwritten class system at the universities,” Fulmer said. “And we are at the bottom of it.”

“Education workers have been under attack for decades,” he continued. “We are finally standing up and fighting back. It’s one thing to see classism and the squeezing of the middle class in the corporate world as executives see their relatively obscene pay continue to go up at rates above inflation. But for the same thing to be happening in education is not something workers will continue to tolerate.”

And Oregon’s state university workers aren’t the only ones taking action. Oregon is a powder keg of militancy right now, and its fuse is now burning bright and hot. Grocery store workers at the Fred Meyer supermarket chain are ramping up their campaign against their employer, and while there are no official plans to strike yet, tensions are running high; their union, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555, has already called for a boycott, and filed an unfair labor practice report against the chain.

In the healthcare sector, the 4,500 members of the Service Employees International Union Local 49 workers at Kaiser Permanente authorized a strike (with a 98 percent approval rate) if a deal isn’t reached before their existing contract expires in October—which was only narrowly avoided with a new tentative agreement. Elsewhere in the industry, the Oregon Nurses Association, which represents more than 120 nurses at Astoria Hospital, has been deadlocked in contract negotiations with the hospital administration; their last contract expired in May, and the clock is ticking.

“Oregon has a really strong labor movement that is really building from the ground up,” Burley explains. “This is a part of the national wave of labor growth. People are seeing a precarious economy where real wages are falling and the solution is collective action in the workplace.”

It’s unclear just how deeply such collective action may take root this fall, but it certainly would be fitting if the general strike returned to the Northwest in 2019. And from there we can only hope that its spirit will spread even further, into the heart of Midwestern farming, Southern manufacturing, Texan oil fields, Appalachian coal mines, Northeastern construction, the Silicon Valley tech giants, and everywhere in between. Lord knows that something’s gotta give.