Work stoppage looms for largest unit of Oregon public employees

Some 18,000 state employees represented by Service Employees International Union Local 503, Oregon Public Employees Union, have been working without a contract since July 16.

Nearly 300 member leaders voted unanimously July 14 to recommend rejection of the state's last and final offer and to authorize a strike. Strike vote meetings are scheduled at dozens of locations during the week of July 23. Talks broke down at 6 a.m. July 12, following a 22-hour bargaining session. Local 503 declared an impasse as the two sides continued to disagree on the size of wage increases, health care coverage, and the creation of a new non-permanent workforce.

Under state law, the impasse sets the timer on a 30-day cooling-off period, after which state workers could strike if no agreement is reached. The existing two-year contract expired June 30, but was extended for two weeks. The two sides met in a mediated session July 20.

Local 503 represents workers at most state offices, including the departments of transportation, forestry, revenue, and numerous human service agencies.

The key issues at dispute are:

* Wages. Before adjourning, the Legislature approved the governor's request of $100 million for salary and benefit increases. That amount must cover 43,000 state employees. Local 503 dropped its demand that increases be linked to official increases in the cost of living, and instead is asking for cost-of-living raises of 2 percent and 3 percent for the next two years. The state says it won't go above 2 percent a year.

* Health care. The state is willing to pay all increases in health benefit costs for the first 18 months of the contract, but then would put an $80 a month per person cap on additional increases for the final six months. Union bargaining chairman Dave Wells said that's unacceptable because medical coverage could go up more than that amount, leaving workers to pay for the remainder.

"It's something that has been very important to our members - to have health insurance fully paid for, and have no out-of-paycheck costs."

* Contingent work. The state wants to be able to hire a contingent workforce of non-permanent employees to fill its workload needs. These workers would have all the same benefits of permanent employees except job security. In the union's counter-proposal, all vacant permanent positions would have to be filled before contingent employees could be hired.

"We are looking for a settlement," Wells said. "There's not going to be any protest strike this time. If there's going to be any strike, it'll be a real strike."

July 20, 2001 issue

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