Stronger Unions Could Reduce Income Inequality and Strengthen Oregon’s Economy

April 29, 2016

The long-term decline in union representation in Oregon has contributed to the rise in income inequality, which now stands near record highs. Greater levels of union representation could not only help narrow income inequality, but could support economic growth.


For decades, top income earners in Oregon have garnered an ever-larger portion of the state’s economic benefits, while the broad group in the middle and below have lost ground.

Between 1984 and 2014, the share of Oregon income going to the top 20 percent of earners grew by 22 percent, while the portion going to the bottom 60 percent shrunk by 26 percent.

These trends have occurred at the same time unionization in the state has declined. Between 1984 and 2014, the share of Oregon workers represented by a union declined 40 percent.

The decline in the unionized workforce helps explain the widening income gap. Research shows that erosion of unions nationally accounts for about a third of growth in wage inequality among men and about a fifth among women.[1]

A growing body of research also suggests that increased income inequality undermines economic growth, especially long-term growth. Analysts have found that large income gaps reduce consumer demand, hamper acquisition of skills and limit private investment.[2]

Thus, a resurgence of union representation in Oregon could not only benefit workers and reduce income inequality, it could also promote economic prosperity.

[1] Deunionization nationally can explain 33.9 percent of the growth of wage inequality among men and 20.4 percent of the growth of wage inequality among women from 1973 to 2007. Michel, Lawrence, Unions, Inequality, and Faltering Middle-Class Wages, August 29, 2014.

[2] Andrew G. Berg and Jonathan D. Ostry, Equality and Efficiency,” Finance & Development, Vol. 48, No. 3, September 2011, ; Jonathan D. Ostry, Andrew Berg, and Charalambos G. Tsangarides. Redistribution, Inequality, and Growth International Monetary Fund, February 2014; Boushey, Heather and Carter C. Price, How Are Economic Inequality and Growth Connected? A Review of Recent Research, Washington Center for Equitable Growth, October 2014; Ryder, Guy, Urgent Action Needed to Break Out of Slow Growth Trap, International Monetary and Financial Committee, International Monetary Fund, Thirty-Third Meeting, April 16, 2016; Dabla-Norris, Era, Kalpana Kochhar, Nujin Suphaphiphat, Frantisek Ricka, Evridiki Tsount, Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective, June 2015; “Trends in Income Inequality and its Impacts on Economic Growth”, OECD Social, Employment and Migration Working Papers, No. 163, OECD Publishing, 2014; Orrson, James. Income Inequality in America: A Call for Action and Effective Policy, White Paper, May 2015.

Amanda Schroeder: Union Official Couldn’t Get Leave OK’d Before Cancer Surgery

By Mike Francis |
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on November 14, 2014

Amanda Schroeder in June, as she was receiving treatments following her cancer surgery. It took the intervention of a Congressperson to get her leave approved. (Mike Francis / The Oregonian)

Amanda Schroeder in June, as she was receiving treatments following her cancer surgery. It took the intervention of a Congressperson to get her leave approved. (Mike Francis / The Oregonian)

Amanda Schroeder, an Army veteran who is classified as disabled, has had a difficult year. The ratings specialist in the VA’s Portland Regional Benefits Office was diagnosed with breast cancer last November, started chemotherapy in December and underwent a double mastectomy the day after Memorial Day this year. Post-surgery, she underwent a series of radiation treatments.

Her experience with the VA made a bad situation worse, said the wife and mother of two children.

First, she used up her paid leave, which was extended when coworkers donated additional hours of their own leave to her. But how much? She says still hasn’t been told, despite repeated requests for an accounting. Her best clue is the approximately $5,000 the agency deposited in her account in January. That amount represented some portion of the donated leave.

Then, she said, she received a last-minute demand for additional medical documentation on the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday. The agency said it couldn’t grant her leave from her job until it was received.

After her surgery, with her employment status still unsettled, the office of Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., intervened. Only then did the VA grant her unpaid leave, Amanda Schroeder said. She went without pay, except for two smaller payments related to donated leave, until she returned to work in September when her radiation treatments were finished.

Worst of all, Schroeder spent most of the year believing she had lost her private life insurance because of the agency’s negligence.

When the agency stopped paying her, the premiums that had been automatically deducted from her paycheck stopped. She thought her coverage lapsed and she was furious.

“I will never get life insurance again,” she said this summer. “I’m a 37-year-old woman with breast cancer.”

Schroeder, who’s now 38, got a pleasant surprise late last month. She learned that a benefactor in her union had picked up her premiums when the VA stopped paying them. Contrary to what she understood since before her surgery, her coverage didn’t lapse.

“I’m really emotional,” she said in an email Halloween morning after getting off the phone with her insurance carrier. “I am still covered (by) insurance, no thanks to the agency, but great, great thanks to my union.”

Here’s the other thing that makes Schroeder’s case exceptional: She is president of the local chapter of the American Federation of Government Employees, the union that represents about 3,300 VA employees. As union representative, she has represented employees in equal-opportunity actions against VA managers, participated in audits with schedulers and publicly criticized the agency’s personnel policies. Google her name and you’ll see that she has criticized the agency for burning out its employees. She also wrote a blog post just before her surgery in which she called the agency “cruel” and “non-caring.”

Her treatment by her own human relations department during her leave for cancer treatments, she says, was “totally retaliatory.”

Schroeder says others in her office also are veterans who have asked for accommodations for their disabilities, from different job duties to altered seating arrangements. But at least some requests, she said, were met with “a punitive reaction.” Over time, she said, disabled veteran coworkers have quit in frustration.

“They’re burning out at an unconscionable rate,” she said. At the same time, “one of the biggest things we need is more staff. We don’t have enough people.”

Chris Marshall, the director of the Portland VA Regional Office, which handles veterans’ benefits claims, noted that more than 60 percent of the office’s employees are military veterans and many have service-connected disabilities, the result of a conscious effort to hire more disabled veterans.

“When any of our employees experience a health problem or other personal hardship, we support them to the greatest extent possible through our existing programs.,” he said through a spokesman. “The Portland VA Regional Office is committed to the mission of serving veterans.  This can only be achieved through a workforce that receives the same care and compassion that we provide to the veterans we serve.”

Marshall said the office can’t discuss employees’ personal matters, but “we will continue to work hard to resolve concerns.”

-Mike Francis

5 Life-Changing Laws We Can Thank Women For

5 Life-Changing Laws We Can Thank Women For

American women still have a long way to go to achieve equal representation in our nation’s top leadership positions.
By Sarah Ayres,
Published: Sunday 16 March 2014, Think Progress/News Report
American women still have a long way to go to achieve equal representation in our nation’s top leadership positions. But, despite never having held more than 20 percent of seats in Congress, women have still managed to make an indelible mark on our nation’s legislative history, serving as the driving force behind some of America’s greatest progressive achievements.

In honor of Women’s History Month, here are five landmark laws you may not know were enacted with women playing a unique leadership role:

1. Women’s clubs and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 Upton Sinclair’s 1906 expose on the Chicago meatpacking industry may have served as the catalyst for the food safety reform movement, but it was the women’s clubs of the time who did the legwork in building grassroots support for food safety legislation. Members of the General Federation of Women’s Clubs “spearheaded a letter and telegram writing campaign” to which historians attribute the passing of the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. Dr. Harvey Wiley, the first chief of the Pure Food Bureau, said of the club’s instrumental role in enacting the law, “Trust them to put the ball over the goal line every time.” The law, which prohibits interstate commerce in misbranded and adulterated food and drugs, paved the way for the creation of the Food and Drug Administration. Today the FDA continues to protect the health of all Americans by ensuring that our food, drugs, and cosmetics are safe and properly labeled.

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2. Frances Perkins and The Social Security Act of 1935 As both the first woman to hold a cabinet position in the U.S. and the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of Labor, Frances Perkins was instrumental in developing many of the New Deal laws enacted during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, including the one establishing a minimum wage. But Perkins is best remembered as the chief architect of the Social Security Act of 1935, which Roosevelt called“the cornerstone of his administration.” Social Security now insures 90 percent of all Americans against loss of income, keeps millions of Americans out of poverty, and provides all Americans with the peace of mind that they will not become destitute if their family loses its primary source of income due to retirement, disability, or death. It is the most successful and effective income security program in our nation’s history.

3. Mother Jones and the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 Once known as “the most dangerous woman in America” for her fearless organizing tactics, Mary Harris “Mother” Jones began a campaign that ultimately resulted in the enactment of America’s child labor laws. The self-proclaimed “hell-raiser” and United Mine Workers organizer once led hundreds of striking children on a march from the textile mills of Pennsylvania to the doorstep of President Theodore Roosevelt in Long Island, New York. Her dramatic performance spurred the movement to abolish child labor. In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act, which, among other things, banned oppressive child labor.

4. Rachel Carson and the Environmental Protection Agency (1970)With the publication of her groundbreaking book, Silent Spring, Rachel Carson catalyzed the modern environmental movement. By bringing the effects of chemical pesticides to the attention of the American public, Carson is largely credited with inspiring the grassroots movement that led to a ban on DDT and the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. Since its creation, the EPA has worked to protect Americans’ health and the environment.

5. Dolores Huerta and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 Dolores Huerta co-founded the National Farmworkers Association with Cesar Chavez and led a consumer boycott that resulted in the passage of the landmark California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. The first of its kind in the country, the law grants California farm workers the right to collectively organize and bargain for better wages and working conditions. Known for her courage and determination, Huerta was described by Chavez as“completely fearless” – even in the face of sometimes violent opposition. Over the course of her career, Huerta was arrested more than 20 times and was once severely beaten by police at a nonviolent protest in San Francisco. In 2012, President Obama awarded Huerta the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s top civilian honor.

Watch “AFGE Local 2157 Shutdown cup song parody” on YouTube

PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — The federal government shutdown is inspiring protest across the country — including right here in Portland.

Members of the American Federation of Government Employees took their message to YouTube Oct. 4. It’s a take on the song “You’re going to miss me when I’m gone.”

“I got my paycheck for the government shutdown, as Congress we don’t work for free,” the women sing in their shutdown parody. “We’ve convinced the general public that it’s in their best interest that they work for free.”

The local AFGE 2157 wrote the song as if they were members of Congress who still are getting paid during the shutdown.

It looks like Congress and the White House will eventually pay back furloughed workers once the shutdown is over. But laid-off workers say it doesn’t help much in the short-term when bills are due.

In Oregon and Washington there are more than 30,000 furloughed workers. The YouTube video urges followers to call their Congressional representatives via the AFGE call-forwarding service, 1.888.775.3148.

NOW Declares Wal-Mart A Merchant of Shame

NOW Declares Wal-Mart A Merchant of Shame.

In 2002, the National Organization for Women named Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame as part of its Women Friendly Workplace Campaign. Wal-Mart’s dismal record contradicts the worker-friendly image it projects to the public. Join NOW in its campaign to demand changes in Wal-Mart’s unfair practices.

Background: In the years leading up to naming Wal-Mart a Merchant of Shame, NOW leaders and members received numerous complaints regarding workplace environment and employment practices at the chain’s retail stores and distribution centers, as well as its regional and corporate offices. NOW reviewed the extensive public record on cases filed against Wal-Mart and found the allegations disturbing. These included sex discrimination in pay, promotion and compensation, wage abuse, exclusion of contraceptive coverage in insurance plans, violations of child labor laws and the Americans with Disabilities Act, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation. Cases have also been filed regarding firing pro-union workers, eliminating jobs once workers joined unions, and discouraging workers from unionizing.

In the wake of Wal-Mart v. Dukes — the largest class action lawsuit in U.S. history, filed on behalf of 1.5 million women employees who were discriminated against while working for the retail giant — NOW will continue to fight to bring justice to these women. The Supreme Court heard the case, which included 120 affidavits relating to 235 stores, and ruled that “[e]ven if every single one of these accounts is true, that would not demonstrate that the entire company ‘operate[s] under a general policy of discrimination.'” Essentially, the Roberts Court declared Wal-Mart too big to sue and women as a group not worthy of class action status.

NOW is partnering with United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and other leaders from the women’s movement and labor movement to support the Making Change at Wal-Mart Campaign, which aims to transform the nation’s largest employer into a good employer. Read on for more about NOW’s efforts to get Wal-Mart to clean up its act.


Activists protest the Supreme Court's June 2011 decision

Activists protest the Supreme Court’s June 2011 decision denying class action status to the women of Wal-Mart.

NOW’s Work on Wal-Mart



Activists protest Wal-Mart in Massachusetts

Activists demonstrate outside a Wal-Mart store in western Massachusetts in November 2005.



Video Series: Unions Make the Middle Class


via Video Series: Unions Make the Middle Class.

By Andrew Satter, Lauren Santa Cruz, and Karla Walter

Millions of Americans exercise their right to participate in a union every year. Unions make the middle class strong by ensuring that workers have a strong voice in our economy and our democracy. But union membership is declining, and the middle class is shrinking.

The Center for American Progress Action Fund produced a video series documenting what is at stake in three real stories of how unions make the middle class.

To see videos: