Thousands at Capitol rally for a ‘Better Way’

By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor

SALEM — “We took our fair share of the burden last time, and we’re prepared to do it again,” said state worker union leader Heather Conroy. “However, we should not, can not, and will not do it alone.”

Conroy — executive director of Service Employees (SEIU) Local 503 — made that declaration May 20 in front of several thousand supporters outside the state Capitol. But the message was aimed at the lawmakers behind her. State workers are being asked to agree to pay and benefit cuts in light of the state’s budget shortfall, but they want to know that they’re not the only ones sacrificing. Corporations and the wealthy need to pay a bigger share of taxes, and the state needs to find efficiencies by thinning management’s ranks. Those suggestions are some of the highlights of a 62-page report SEIU Local 503 published March 21, entitled “Moving Oregon Forward: A Better Way.”

Better Way was also the title of the May 20 mass rally at the state Capitol, which was organized by SEIU, an affiliate of the Change to Win labor federation, and the other large state workers union, AFL-CIO-affiliated American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), with support from dozens of labor and community groups. The rally took place on the last of the 10 unpaid furlough days that most state workers were required to take in the current state budget biennium.

In ongoing bargaining over the next two-year contract, Local 503 and Oregon AFSCME are seeing proposals for a de facto 6 percent pay cut — in which the state would take back the pension “pick-up” it first gave under Republican governor Vic Atiyeh in lieu of a pay increase. State worker contract bargaining takes place in a sort of two-step dance simultaneous to the legislative budget process, since the state only can spend what legislators approve. Lawmakers this year are working on a state budget proposal that assumes a freeze or reduction of the salaries and benefits of the governor, statewide elected officials, legislators, and agency managers — and concessions from state workers on salary, health care, and pension costs.

It’s in that context that Local 503 asked its state worker members to suggest ideas for savings. Many of their suggestions are contained in the report.

“An all-cuts budget is simply unacceptable, both for us and those who rely on our work every day,” Conroy told rally-goers. “There is a better way.”

Some of the Better Way proposals are getting traction:

  • SEIU’s finding of 1 manager for every 5.7 workers embarrassed the state; House Bill 2020, still alive as of press time, would direct state agencies over 100 employees to aim for an 11-to-1 ratio (with exceptions to be worked out between agency directors and the Joint Ways and Means committee.)
  • The Oregon Department of Revenue, says Local 503 political organizer Melissa Unger, has acted on a number of Local 503 member suggestions to improve tax collection.
  • A proposal to have state agencies scrutinize service and supply contracts is emerging in the form of a budget line item; it would require state purchasing agents to seek 6.5 percent cost savings from vendors.
  • And a proposal to save state agencies an estimated $15 million by purchasing pharmaceuticals through the Oregon Prescription Drug Program was moving forward as of press time as Senate Bill 962.

“We haven’t been ignored,” says Local 503 spokesperson Ed Hershey.

But SEIU and AFSCME have had more mixed success with proposals to take a close look at tax giveaways — subsidies embedded in the state tax code as credits and deductions.

The unions called attention to inefficiency in the way the state manages its film tax credit; that led to a bill giving the state film commission the discretion to give subsidies directly, cutting out the investor middle-men who currently put money into film projects and then collect it back as tax credits.

But a blanket proposal to rate tax breaks according to whether they benefit mostly the wealthy appears unlikely to pass. Unger chalked that up to the 30-30 Republican-Democrat split in the Oregon House.

That logjam seemed to irk Oregon AFSCME Executive Director Ken Allen.

“The people in this building need to wake up,” Allen declared at the rally. “It’s time to end the giveaways. It’s beyond time to tax the rich.”

Organizers estimated from 3,000 to 4,000 people took part, including nearly a thousand who came from around Oregon on 22 buses. Participants were bused from Albany, Beaverton, Bend, Clackamas, Coos Bay, Corvallis, The Dalles, Eugene/Springfield, Grants Pass, Hermiston, Hillsboro, Hood River, Klamath Falls, La Grande, Medford, Pendleton, Portland, and Roseburg, and car pools embarked from Astoria, Lincoln City, Newport, and Tillamook.

On the way to Salem, some buses made stops at corporate storefronts of Verizon, Bank of America, and US Bank to protest those profitable companies for not paying federal corporate income tax.

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