Oregon’s largest union has a new top officer. Melissa Unger, 38, was sworn in March 10 as executive director of Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 503. She’ll oversee 140 union staff serving more than 58,000 union members — state and local government workers, and non-profit and home care workers.
Unger was serving as Local 503’s political director. She succeeds Brian Rudiger, who announced his resignation in November. Unger was appointed by the local’s executive board to serve the reminder of Rudiger’s elected term of office, which runs through September.
A native Oregonian, Unger grew up on a wheat and clover farm in western Washington County. After attending the University of Oregon, she led the Oregon Student Association for five years. She went to work for Local 503 in 2007 as a political organizer, left for a six-month stint with the Oregon House Democrats in 2011, and then directed SEIU’s Oregon State Council before becoming Local 503 political director in June 2014.
Local 503 is one of Oregon’s most politically active unions, and has been a major force behind ballot measure campaigns in recent decades. Unger is also the sister of former state representative Ben Unger, who now leads Our Oregon, a union-backed group that fights for economic and social justice via ballot measure campaigns.
At Local 503, Melissa Unger led a 2011 effort to solicit ideas from state workers about how to save taxpayer dollars and make government more efficient. That resulted in several pieces of legislation, including a law setting goals for the minimum number of workers per manager at state agencies.
In 2013, Unger helped set up the Oregon Homecare Worker Supplemental and Benefits Trusts. The Trusts now provide paid time off, dental, vision, and supplemental health benefits to over 20,000 home care workers.
Unger comes into leadership at a critical moment for Local 503 and public sector unions in general, with the U.S. Supreme Court about to decide whether to prohibit mandatory union fees for all public sector unions nationwide. A decision in the Janus v AFSCME case is expected by the end of June, and it’s considered likely that a 5-4 majority will side with the anti-union National Right to Work Legal Foundation. But Unger says Local 503 has experience getting ready for an “open shop” workplace with voluntary dues, because its home care worker members have operated in that environment since a 2014 Supreme Court decision in a cased called Harris v Quinn.
“We’ve learned that the thing you’ve got to do to make sure people want to be members is talk with them and have one-on-one conversations,” Unger told the Labor Press.