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SEIU rally

Members of Service Employees International Union rally outside the Oregon State Capitol in May.

State employees got a win unlike anything they have seen since before the recession with the Legislature dedicating $200 million to pay increases.

That money allowed Service Employees International Union Local 503 to negotiate a two-year contract with the state that gives a 10 to 15% automatic pay increase, a 3% cost-of-living adjustment and a freeze on insurance premiums to 24,000 state employees. The contract was agreed upon Friday, but is still being drafted.

“This is the most significant we’ve seen the wages increase since 2007 — prerecession,” said SEIU 503 spokesman Ben Morris.

SEIU represents workers throughout state agencies such as the Oregon Department of Transportation, State Parks and Department of Forestry.

The new contract does not include about 4,500 SEIU-represented classified employees at the state's seven public universities, including about 1,500 at Oregon State. Those workers are part of a separate bargaining unit that is negotiating a new labor agreement.

Step increases, or guaranteed raises, had previously been frozen and cost-of-living increases were only 1.5 percent, Morris said.

Step increases were frozen from 2009-11, with a partial freeze in 2012. Also, in the last decade the average cost-of-living adjustment was 1.4 percent.

“I think the Legislature made a statement,” he said.

Morris said lobbying the Legislature was a session-long endeavor that included six “lobby days” during which SEIU members came to the Capitol to meet with lawmakers. Then, the union negotiated with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services for two months.

Ten member representatives would meet with department representatives every two weeks, and daily in the final few weeks. The final details weren’t agreed upon until 2:30 a.m. Friday, Morris said.

The final step is ratification, where a majority of the 24,000 members have to approve the contract. That will take about two months.

“This will be a popular contract so I don’t expect we’ll have hiccups there,” Morris said.

It’s a bright spot for a public employee union that has faced challenges recently. About a year ago, a U.S. Supreme Court ruling said unions cannot demand dues from public employees. All members must opt in. The court case that led to the decision was backed by anti-union group the Freedom Foundation, which has continued to go after unions.

Aaron Withe, Freedom Foundation’s Oregon director, said the new contract is self-serving.

“SEIU and other government unions’ goal is to raise taxes and bloat government,” Withe said, adding with that bloated government comes more government jobs and more money for unions.

Withe said he’s heard from members who say they’d be better off without collective bargaining.

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Many analyses, including from the Economic Policy Institute, have found workers in labor unions get paid better than those outside of unions.

Morris said despite that challenging environment, the union has remained strong. While the Freedom Foundation has sent out news releases claiming SEIU 503 lost members in droves, Morris said it actually has seen a 2.2% increase in membership over the past year.

“By and large, public employees are choosing to stick with their union, and it paid off,” he said.

Withe said he is “extremely skeptical” of that claim, saying it doesn’t match up with numbers he got from the state.

In addition to pay increases, the union secured a deal to allow employees to cash in up to 40 hours of vacation time per year, as long as the balance afterward is at least 60 hours.

The union also codified a previously informal agreement that allowed employees to telecommute if they can reasonably do so.

Morris said the increase in pay will lead to more continuity in the workplace, creating a desirable work atmosphere and better services from state agencies.

“I think this job will go a long way to reduce turnover and improve public services in the state of Oregon,” he said.

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