In an earlier era, organized labor led the way in ensuring that jobs paid good wages and benefits, creating a broad middle class in the process. The system was far from perfect, especially in that it failed to fully include many workers of color. Nevertheless, that earlier era showed that worker power is essential to an economy where everyone can live in dignity and has an opportunity to thrive.
Worker power has decreased during decades of attacks by corporate interests and neglect by the federal government. As worker power has weakened, working conditions and compensation have declined. Before the start of the pandemic, when Oregon had one of the strongest job markets on record, more than half of all jobs in the state paid too little to adequately support a family. Many of those jobs also failed to offer enough hours of work, or benefits such as health insurance and paid sick leave.
Oregon’s Black and brown workers and women are more likely to contend with discrimination in hiring, low pay, weak benefits, unsafe conditions, inflexible work arrangements, and wage theft. Historical and current policies and practices relegate people of color and women to lower-paying jobs, while workplace discrimination denies them better job opportunities. Rural workers are also more likely than urban workers to hold jobs that pay too little to make ends meet.
The remedy for an exploitive job is worker power. Oregon can take decisive steps to ensure that workers harness their collective strength to demand fair hiring practices, better wages, and humane working conditions.
Extend the right to organize to excluded workers
Oregon should create a right to organize for workers excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, which protects workers from being punished or fired for organizing. This includes farmworkers and domestic workers — disproportionately people of color.
Bargaining rights for all workers across an industry
Oregon should grant workers in particular industries — those that rely heavily on low-paid workers, including gig workers — the power to bargain across the industry. Bargaining across an entire industry or occupation can empower gig, temporary, and other workers who face particularly high barriers to organizing.
Monitor worker conditions through data collection
Public knowledge of poor working conditions can spur action to address the problem. Oregon should explore means of ongoing data collection regarding workers’ challenges, such as by adding questions to existing surveys or tax returns, and analyzing administrative data.
Give the community a role in enforcing labor laws
Right now, the state lacks the capacity to adequately enforce labor laws, allowing employers to get away with cheating workers out of their rights. Oregon can overcome this limitation by increasing funding for the state’s labor agency and by implementing an innovative co-enforcement model. Giving the community a role in enforcing labor laws would better target resources, expand capacity, and help ensure employers follow the rules.