Oregon unions: Fewer members, reaching further

Still in top 10 states, with 250,000 workers represented

SALEM, Ore. - New national figures say union membership is on the decline across the country. It's part of a national trend that labor leaders say is the result of unemployment overall and anti-union activity in states like Wisconsin and Indiana.

However, Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) figures also point to some changes in union membership that could be beneficial in the long run, according to Oregon AFL-CIO president Tom Chamberlain.

Unions are reaching beyond their ranks and into the community, he says, joining with students, activists and minority groups to work on social justice issues.

"When we broaden our base, we become more powerful," he explained. "It's not power that's given to our national leaders. It's community power that allows us to move a grassroots agenda -- a workers' agenda, at the local level."

The Oregon AFL-CIO, the state's largest labor organization, also has a young leaders' group, an LGBT group, and black and Latino organizations.

The survey says despite the overall drop in union numbers, more Asian, black and Latino workers are joining unions. And it reports that Oregon remains in the 'top 10' states for union membership, with 250,000 workers represented.

Every week, Chamberlain says, his office gets calls from people interested in forming a union in their workplace. He insists there is still some intimidation from employers, although that is illegal. Eroding benefits are workers' most common concern, he says.

"We're seeing more and more employers telling their workers, 'You can't work more than 30 hours, because if you do, we've got to pay for your health care,.'" Chmberlain said. "We've got to fix that. Employers have got to step up to the plate. They have to be responsible."

In the Legislature, the Oregon AFL-CIO is backing a bill to require that public employers stay neutral in any union organizing effort. It is also proposing that lawmakers be able to commit to numbers of living-wage jobs for every piece of legislation they tout as a "job-creator."

The BLS report is available at http://bls.gov.

Chris Thomas of Oregon News Service provided this report

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