Labor campaigns for living-wage jobs in Central Oregon

Bend — Labor activists in Central Oregon are stepping up their efforts to bring more living-wage jobs to workers living east of the Cascades.

Central Oregon Jobs with Justice, a community-based coalition of some 200 local residents, recently released a new study that shows an alarming lack of living wage jobs in Deschutes, Crook and Jefferson counties. The Central Oregon Labor Council met with four Bend City Council candidates in mid-September to share strategies for raising wages in a region where the unofficial slogan is “Poverty with a View.”

Deschutes County wages — the highest in the region — fall short of providing a living wage for families, according to Searching for Work that Pays: 2004 Northwest Job Gap Study, a report issued by the Northwest Federation of Community Organizations.

The county’s average wage is $13.58 an hour, according to Economic Development of Central Oregon. The Job Gap study says a living wage for a family of one adult and one child is $17.60 an hour in Bend — a high-cost city — and $14.76 an hour in lower cost rural areas.

More than one-third of the jobs in Deschutes County average $10 an hour or less, and the Oregon Employment Department projects that 56 percent of the jobs created in Central Oregon over the next decade will be low-wage jobs — retail sales, cashiers, wait staff, maids, clerks and janitors.

“People are told that if they get a job and go to work every day, they will be able to provide for themselves and their families and possibly move up the economic ladder,” notes Michael Funke, chairperson of Central Oregon Jobs with Justice. “But far too many people are forced to take low-wage jobs that keep them mired in poverty. A growing number of workers need more than one job and still can’t earn a living wage to cover the basic needs of their families. A job should lift you out of poverty, not keep you in it.”

The Central Oregon Labor Council’s meeting with the City Council candidates provided opportunity for union leaders, community activists and elected officials to discuss strategies for bringing more living wage jobs to the city. The four candidates, including three incumbents, are running unopposed and will take office in January.

City Councilor Linda Johnson expressed interest in working with Central Oregon unions, economic justice groups, employers and educators to plan economic development that matches potential jobs with the local workforce and provide the job training and education to make the match work.

There was general agreement among the city councilors that Central Oregon needs employers who will hire workers that are already in the region, not businesses that import new workers, and that employers should meet specific minimum standards regarding wages and benefits, the number of jobs, and a commitment to stay in the region.

City councilors also agreed that workers have the right to form a union.

Fernando Gapasin, president of the Central Oregon Labor Council, suggested that city council members could set a pro-worker tone in Bend by supporting the Employee Free Choice Act (S. 1925 and H.R. 3619) — federal legislation that would allow workers to freely choose whether to organize a union by signing union authorization cards, provide for mediation and arbitration in first contract battles and establish stronger penalties when employers violate labor law.

Overall union density in Central Oregon is below state and national levels — especially in the private sector.

“Central Oregon workers in all occupations deserve living wage jobs that support their families,” said Gapasin. “A growing number of private sector workers in our area are expressing interest in joining unions so that they can bargain with their employers over wages, benefits and working conditions. We will do all that we can to help them organize.”

Health care and tourism — including year-round resorts, hotels and motels and restaurants — are the largest sectors of the regional economy, and both provide new opportunities for union organizing.

Central Oregon workers who want to learn more about unions and workers’ rights can contact Gapasin at the Labor Council at 541-420-293784, or Central Oregon Jobs With Justice at 541-617-3879.

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