Labor activity has increased, but barriers to unionizing remain

Labor activity has increased, but barriers to unionizing remain

While Oregon is witnessing a resurgence of labor activity and a growing demand for union representation, worker organizing still faces many challenges.

Labor activity has increased, but barriers to unionizing remain

Mirroring national trends, labor activity in Oregon has intensified in recent years. This includes a range of collective efforts such as bargaining for workplace contracts, refusing unsafe work conditions, striking, and taking steps toward forming a union, like filing for union recognition.[1]

Despite the surging activism by workers and interest in forming unions, the share of workers belonging to unions has not increased — a reflection of both the rapid growth in non-union jobs and the continuing obstacles that workers face when seeking to form a union. Oregon can help workers achieve union representation by allowing striking workers to claim unemployment insurance benefits, extending the right to organize to workers lacking federal protections, instituting wage boards, and expanding just cause protections.

Workers are more active than they have been in a long time

Labor activity in Oregon has intensified, reflecting broader national trends of worker mobilizations.

Oregon and the wider U.S. have seen a surge in labor activity, driven by workers demanding better pay, benefits, and working conditions. Issues like housing insecurity, workload, class size for teachers, and poverty wages have been in the forefront for many.[2] Workers are taking more action in response to their economic realities and also capitalizing on a tight labor market.[3

Oregon workers have ramped up their mobilization efforts over the past few years, starting with 9 strikes in 2021, increasing to 10 in 2022, and shooting up to 23 strikes involving 84,000 workers in 2023, including strikes by the Portland Association of Teachers and the Oregon Nurses Association.[4] Nationally, the same trends are apparent. The number of strikes escalated from 279 in 2021 to 470 by the end of 2023, involving 539,000 workers in that year alone.[5]

Chart: Number of strikes in Oregon jumped in 2023

Workers in Oregon have demanded more union recognition. In the decade prior to 2022, petitions for union recognition submitted to the National Labor Relations Board by workers in Oregon, ranged from about 24 to 51 annually. However, in 2022, the number of petitions reached 117, a 250 percent increase from the average over the prior decade. That pace continued in Oregon with 112 petitions filed in 2023.[6]

Chart: union petitions in Oregon have surged

Additionally, the number of workers’ demanding union representation has increased, indicating growing interest in unionization. In 2022, about 3,100 workers filed for union representation, a 97% percent increase over the previous decade. In 2023, about 3,800 workers filed, an additional 18 percent increase, and the highest year since at least 2013.[7] Nationally, workers reversed a downward trend from 2012 to 2021, filing 2,200 petitions in 2022, an 18% rise from the average of the previous ten years. This upward trend persisted into 2023, seeing an additional 8% increase in petitions.[8]

Nationally, despite a long-term decline, the last two years have seen an increase in workers belonging to unions. In 2023, the number jumped to 14.4 million, up from 14 million in 2021.[9] Although union membership data for Oregon is available, it has not been emphasized here due to concerns over its reliability.[10]

Unionization rates are down because of growth of non-union jobs

Despite the apparent increase in worker interest in unions, nationally the share of workers belonging to unions declined in 2023 — a reflection of the rapid growth of non-union jobs.

In 2023, the total number of workers belonging to unions grew by 115,000.[11] That year, the economy also added 2.9 million jobs.[12] In other words, while union membership experienced growth, non-union employment outpaced union employment.[13]

At the same time, the demands by Oregon workers for union representation have not fully translated into successful union elections, slowing the growth in union jobs. From 2010 to 2023, about 54 percent of workers who petitioned for an NLRB election achieved official union recognition.[14]  Evidence points to employers engaging in anti-union and coercive tactics to intimidate and repress workers’ chances at winning union recognition.[15]

Removing the barriers that workers face in joining and winning union recognition could lead to substantial growth in union membership.

Oregon can help make it easier for workers to join unions

Two-thirds of Americans approve of labor unions and believe that a stronger union influence ensures that more people reap the benefits of our economy.[16] Oregon can provide supportive policies that strengthen workers’ voices in the workplace, including:

Extending unemployment insurance (UI) to striking workers. Allowing striking workers to claim UI could help catalyze further unionization, addressing the significant power disparity in the workplace. Existing labor laws provide little protection for workers attempting to organize and allow many forms of anti-union behavior, such as coercive meetings and fear mongering about job losses.[17] But a 2020 survey shows that when workers have greater access to UI, they have a greater chance of engaging in collective action to demand better safety and health standards.[18] This policy would not directly extend UI to workers who are in the process of organizing, but by enhancing the security of unionized workers during strikes, it indirectly supports the organizing process among non-union workers.[19] Workers observing the benefits of UI support during strikes will feel more empowered and secure to organize and join unions themselves. Thus, extending UI to striking workers would allow more workers, especially historically marginalized workers, greater power to take collective action.

Extend bargaining rights to workers excluded from the NLRA. Granting bargaining rights to workers excluded from the National Labor Relations Act would enable more workers to form and join unions. More than 116,000 Oregon agricultural and domestic workers — disproportionately immigrant and workers of color — are not covered by the NLRA and lack long-established organizing rights.[20] Independent contractors, or “gig workers,” are also excluded. They too are more likely to be workers of color. To address this, Oregon can develop state level organizing protections for workers and compel employers to bargain in good faith. It can also speed up the process by facilitating union recognition through the process known as majority card check, where the union is automatically certified if 55 percent or more of employees sign union authorization cards. California adopted such a measure for agricultural workers in 2022.[21]  This would not only enable excluded workers to form and join a union of their choice, but bypass employer anti-union campaigns.

Establish industry wage boards. Wage boards can help to revitalize and grow labor unions, while improving pay and working conditions. Wage boards are entities established by the state or local governments that recommend or set standards for pay and working conditions for an entire industry. By setting a minimum standard that all employers have to meet, wage boards can create less volatility in industries. This stability is due to employers being less likely to leave since all businesses are following the same standards. Consequently, this minimum standard of wages not only brings stability to an industry but also empowers workers to successfully organize. Specifically, these minimum standards reduce incentives for employer opposition to organizing drives and allow workers to successfully form unions. For example, sectoral campaigns to raise the minimum wage in airports not only increased their base pay, but also enabled 30,000 airport workers to successfully organize.[22]

Implement Just Cause. Oregon should enact just cause employment protections — a fair and transparent process for discipline and termination in which workers can only be fired for misconduct or other sufficiently serious reasons — for all Oregonians. Currently, law enforcement, classified school employees and other public sector employees in Oregon currently benefit from just cause rights.[23] But other private-sector workers have no such rights and are considered “at-will,” meaning they can be legally fired without warning or explanation.[24] Implementing this protection would mean that workers have additional leverage when exercising their right to improve their working conditions and form a union. Under the prevailing at-will employment system, too many employers can terminate employees, even during union election drives, and face minimal consequences.[25] Implementing just cause employment standards can significantly change this. This fair and transparent standard restricts an employer’s ability to arbitrarily dismiss employees, particularly if the motivation is to discourage unionization efforts. By eliminating this unnecessary power imbalance in the workplace, just cause enables workers to more effectively take collective action.


While Oregon is witnessing a resurgence of labor activity and a growing demand for union representation, worker organizing still faces many challenges. Oregon can address these systemic obstacles by extending unemployment insurance to striking workers, broadening bargaining rights to those currently excluded, instituting wage boards, and expanding just cause to all Oregonians. Such measures would help ensure that workers have necessary rights and protections to effectively organize, bargain collectively, and influence industry standards.


[1]Your Rights,” National Labor Relations Board.

[2] Mallory Gruben, “Hot labor summer: Hype, or a real shift in mood?,” Northwest Labor Press, Aug 24, 2023; Connor McCarthy, “New Seasons workers strike for better working conditions in NW Portland,” FOX 12 Oregon, February 18, 2024; Natalie Pate, “What did Portland teachers get from their strike?,” OPB, November 29, 2023; and Aimee Plante and Joyce Ogirri, “‘Not able to afford housing’: Yamhill County Employees Association kicks off strike,” KOIN, November 3, 2023.

[3] Mallory Gruben, “Hot labor summer: Hype, or a real shift in mood?,” Northwest Labor Press, Aug 24, 2023.

[4] Author’s analysis of strike data from the Cornell ILR School, Labor Action Tracker, 2021 – 2023. Because some Oregon strikes may have been multi-state strikes, this number include out of state strikers as well.

[5] Kathryn Ritchie, Johnnie Kallas, et al., “Labor Action Tracker Annual Report 2023, Cornell University IRL School, 2024  and Kathryn Ritchie, Johnnie Kallas, et al., “Labor Action Tracker 2022“, Cornell University IRL School, 2023 . Work stoppages may include lockouts.

[6] National Labor Relations Board, Recent Charges and Petitions Filings 2010-2023.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Membership, Activity, and Compensation in 2022 and Union Members Summary, January 23, 2024.

[10] With just under 1,100 households forming the basis for statewide estimates, the data has limitations when trying to look at unionization in particular industries or sectors. Additionally, discrepancies between CPS data and other reliable employment estimates have led to a focus on more stable and representative data sources. This information was based on a conversation with Janet Bauer, Research Associate at the Labor Education and Research Center and Gail Krumenauer, Oregon State Employment Economist.

[11] U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Union Membership, Activity, and Compensation in 2022 and Union Members Summary, January 23, 2024.

[12] Heidi Shierholz, Celine McNicholas, et al., “Workers want unions, but the latest data point to obstacles in their path,” Economic Policy Institute, January 23, 2024.

[13] Heidi Shierholz, Margaret Poydock, and Celine McNicholas, “Unionization increased by 200,000 in 2022,” Economic Policy Institute, January 19, 2023.

[14] OCPP analysis of NLRB petitions from 2010-2023.

[15] Heidi Shierholz, Celine McNicholas, et al., “Workers want unions, but the latest data point to obstacles in their path,” Economic Policy Institute, January 23, 2024.

[16] Lydia Saad, “More in U.S. See Unions Strengthening and Want It That Way,” Gallup, August 30, 2023

[17] Gordon Lafer and Lola Loustaunau, “Fear at work: An inside account of how employers threaten, intimidate, and harass workers to stop them from exercising their right to collective bargaining,” Economic Policy Institute, July 23, 2020; and Chirag Mehta and Nik Theodore, “Undermining the Right to Organize: Employer Behavior During Union Representation Campaigns”, Jobs with Justice, December 2005

[18] Daniel Perez, “Extending unemployment insurance to striking workers would cost little and encourage fair negotiations,” Economic Policy Institute, January 29, 2024

[19] Alexander Hertel-Fernandez and Alix Gould-Werth, “Labor organizations and Unemployment Insurance: A virtuous circle supporting U.S workers’ voices and reducing disparities in benefits”, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, October 9, 2020.

[20] Tyler Mac Innis and Janet Bauer, “Oregon Should Ensure All Workers Have the Right to Organize,” Oregon Center for Public Policy, August 30, 2023

[21] Legislative Assembly of British Columbia, Labour Relations Code Amendment Act, 2022 and California State Legislature 2022, AB-2183 Agricultural Labor Relations.

[22 Ken Jacobs, Rebecca Smith, et al.,”State and Local Policies and Sectoral Labor Standards: from Individual Rights to Collective Power”, IRLE Institute for Research on Labor and Employment July 2, 2021.

[23] Oregon Laws, Oregon Revised Statutes, § 236.350; Oregon Legislative Assembly, “Senate Bill 283 – 2023 Regular Session”; and also League of Oregon Cities. “Loudermill FAQ”, June 2017.

[24] Irene Tung, Jared Odessky, et al., “ ‘Just Cause’ Job Protections: Building Racial Equity and Shifting the Power Balance Between Workers and Employers”, National Employment Law Project April 30, 2021.

[25] Celine McNicholas, Margaret Poydock, et al., “Unlawful: U.S employers are charged with violating federal law in 41.5% of all union election campaigns”, Economic Policy Institute, December 11th 2019.

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Kathy Lara

Kathy Lara is a Policy Analyst with the Oregon Center for Public Policy

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