Oregon can protect exploited, low-paid workers. Here’s how.

Commentary
December 12, 2022By Juan Carlos Ordóñez

Not long after Morrisha Jones joined her co-workers in petitioning to form a union at one Burgerville location, the fast-food chain suspended the eight-month pregnant cook. Other workers also faced punishment, suspension and termination. While the negative publicity surrounding Morrisha’s suspension forced the company to backtrack, this wouldn’t be the last instance of intimidation that Burgerville workers would endure on their way to making history.

Last December, after more than three years of struggle, employees at five Burgerville stores in Oregon became the first fast-food workers in the country covered by a union contract. As inspiring as their courage and determination are, their story is a reminder of how the system is stacked against workers joining together to improve their working conditions.

It’s high-time Oregon protects workers toiling in industries where low wages and poor working conditions run rampant. Our state should follow the lead of California in creating industry boards giving workers a voice in setting minimum industry standards.

Right now, there is a huge disconnect between the desire of workers to join a union and their ability to do so. According to Gallup, 71% of Americans approve of unions — the highest level in more than half a century. The desire to have a voice in the workplace is also evident from the wave of organizing that has penetrated companies that once seemed out of reach, including Starbucks and Amazon. Still, the share of workers belonging to unions hovers at record lows nationally, and remains low in Oregon.

What explains this disconnect? Part of it is due to the weakening of the federal laws protecting workers’ right to organize. And part is the product of aggressive anti-union tactics by corporations. Not only do employers spend about $340 million every year on union-busting consultants, they have no qualms about breaking the law to stifle unionization. On paper, workers have a right to organize, free of retaliation from employers. Yet, researchers have found that employers are charged with firings and other illegal forms of retaliation in four of 10 union election campaigns. When employers are found guilty, they pay no monetary penalties for breaking the law. It’s a get-out-of-jail-free card for corporations.

Although it’s beyond Oregon’s power to fix the broken legal system governing workplace organizing — that responsibility falls on Congress alone — there is much the state can do to strengthen the hand of workers. A key strategy is creating a board comprised of employers, workers and the public officials charged with setting minimum standards in a particular industry — an approach called “sectoral bargaining.”

The benefits of sectoral bargaining are many. It puts in place a means to lift wages and working conditions for a broad group of low-paid workers, thereby improving the economic well-being of Oregon families. It ensures that high-road employers providing decent wages and benefits are not undercut by unscrupulous competitors that exploit workers. And it gives a voice to a large group of workers, especially those in industries that workers find difficult to organize.

Fast food workers are one group that would benefit from sectoral bargaining. It took years of heroic organizing to form a union consisting of 100 workers in five Burgerville locations. Considering that there are about 57,000 fast food workers in Oregon spread out over hundreds of establishments, it’s clear that it will be a long, difficult road to organize the industry. And better working conditions can’t come soon enough for fast food workers, who get by on a median hourly wage of about $14 in Oregon and suffer from high levels of wage theft, unsafe working conditions, and other challenges.

Sectoral bargaining is not a substitute for unions. Rather, as history shows, it is a strategy that can work in tandem with workplace organizing to lift up working conditions broadly.

Through their courage and determination, Oregon workers have signaled their desire to have a voice in the workplace. At the same time, the economic insecurity affecting so many working families speaks to the urgency to raise wages and improve working conditions. With sectoral bargaining, Oregon can step up and protect workers in a way that this moment requires.