Commentary

In Oregon, legislators are stepping in to advance worker benefits broader than unions

The controversial farmworker OT bill represents another signal that lawmakers are ready to more aggressively serve workers

March 4, 2022 5:30 am
Oregon Senate floor session

Oregon legislators increasingly are handling worker issues once largely left to labor unions, employers. (Amanda Loman/Oregon Capital Chronicle)

On first impression, the fight for farmworker overtime In Oregon looks like a struggle to claim 20th Century labor standards for a historically marginalized workforce. True enough.

But it’s also another example of how blue state legislatures have begun to use their lawmaking powers to improve conditions for workers in every nook of the 21st Century economy.

As legislators enacted HB 4002, I see more than a potential win for some 86,000 farmworkers in Oregon. I see a new path to make jobs better for working people – a path that diverges from an outmoded 1930s bargaining structure that makes little sense today.

There was a time when some labor unions were wary of legislating terms of employment for private sector workers. They wanted to bargain for the “union advantage” and let workers come to them for the benefits.

That way of thinking persisted, even as union membership declined.

By the mid-1990s, I was still hearing concerns from older union leaders about efforts to raise the state’s minimum wage, as if gains from legislation would somehow compete with gains from bargaining.

But as private sector unions shrank and public sector unions grew, the political organizing tactics of the latter began to pay dividends for workers that far exceeded what could be accomplished in isolated bargaining units.

The union movement in Oregon managed to secure increases in the minimum wage for more than 100,000 workers by going to the ballot in 1996 and 2002. (I helped to lead the 2002 campaign.) The Service Employees International Union used the same tactic to establish a centralized employment structure for tens of thousands of home care workers via Measure 99.

Then, as Democrats gained strong majorities in the legislature, the action shifted from the ballot box to the halls of the Capitol.

Legislators have since raised and regionalized the state’s minimum wage, mandated sick leave benefits for most workers and created a statewide family leave benefit to be implemented by 2023. More recently, pandemic relief funds from the federal government have inspired a push for supplemental paychecks for working families as well.

But the process that shaped the farmworker overtime bill is remarkable for three reasons.

First, it comes at the behest of a non-traditional farmworkers union whose leaders turned down offers for a state-level bargaining law in the past. Such laws invariably rely on single-employer contracts that are difficult to bring to scale across an industry.

Second, it’s far better to legislate for all workers in a workforce than to bargain for a few. This industry-wide approach is the only way to avoid creating competitive disadvantages for cooperative employers and bring resistant employers into the fold.

Third, lawmakers are becoming more sophisticated in their role as advocates for workers. They realize that keeping a business viable is always part of the equation. They responded to that challenge in crafting the overtime legislation, which now includes a phase-in period and graduated grants and tax subsidies for small, midsize and large employers.

It’s still the case that workplace organizing, employer by employer, makes headlines. We’ve seen that recently at Starbucks stores and in sporadic efforts to unionize Amazon warehouses.

But even the most successful of these efforts usually affect dozens, a few hundred or maybe a thousand workers – at great time and expense for the unions involved. Legislated gains, by contrast, can reach tens or hundreds of thousands of workers.

That was the goal of the New Deal’s wage-and-hour laws, which Oregon’s farmworkers, along with their counterparts in California and Washington, are only catching up with today.

Separately, the New Dealers empowered unions to take on employers for more than the legal minimums. But they did so in a very different economy, focused on single employers in single locations. That model is now ill-equipped to deal with a globalized economy in which capital is mobile, startups leapfrog legacy companies and career paths take workers through multiple employers.

When it comes to a labor agenda In Oregon and other blue states, we’re seeing pro-worker lawmakers expand their reach to take on the terms of employment for whole industries and workforces. They’re not abandoning their support for collective bargaining; they’re just doing what works for their constituents.

We’re on a path that employers and unions will have to learn to navigate as they try to keep up with where lawmakers in blue states are heading.

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Tim Nesbitt

Tim Nesbitt, a former union leader in Oregon, served as an adviser to Governors Ted Kulongoski and John Kitzhaber and later helped to design Measure 98 in 2016, which provided extra, targeted funding for Oregon’s high schools.

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