Nearly twenty-six years ago, the Oregon Public Employees Union (OPEU) led a very successful strike that essentially shut down the whole state. For those of us who are new to labor organizing and who only know the current dismal state of labor the labor movement in general, the 1995 OPEU strike represents an exciting glimmer of the power we can build when we put in the organizing work to win what we want.
What set the stage for this strike was that public employees had been subject to a 2-year pay freeze when they entered bargaining and were also upset about a 6% reduction in their PERS benefits brought on by the passage of Ballot Measure 8, which had been introduced by anti-union and anti-public worker, Bill Sizemore. During bargaining the state maintained that it could only support a 2% raise and the ballot measure made it impossible for the union to bargain to make up the 6% reduction in retirement benefits. The state refused to budge even though a neutral fact finder found that a 6.5% wage increase was fair, and that the union was committed to fighting for it.
What the state didn’t anticipate was that there was overwhelming rank and file support for a strike with 93% of members voting in favor. Public employees were simply fed up and wanted to send a clear message to legislators and management that they were done being disrespected and not paid fair wages for their labor. These workers argued that their jobs were essential and proved it by calling for a general strike of all members including non-state workers which affected nearly four dozen state agencies. All said more than 15,000 members of OPEU walked off the job and onto picket lines statewide.
The original plan was for a 3-day general strike, but the strike ended up lasting a week and effectively shut down the whole state, or at least made it run a lot slower. In addition to the statewide picket lines, union leaders held a march and rally at the Oregon State Capitol, where as many as 10,000 members and supporters showed up. OPEU also fought the state in the courts and eventually Measure 8 was overturned as an unconstitutional interference with the right to bargain. Public employees did win the contract they were fighting for and went on to win an even better contract in 1997.
This strike is important for the current labor movement because essential workers, such as those going on strike in 1995, are not being paid fair wages and public workers have found their retirement and other benefits shrinking for decades as federal and state funds dwindle and anti-union, anti-public employee groups fund anti-worker messaging and legislation. Additionally, for the last year essential workers, many of whom are on the front lines of the pandemic, have been fighting for safe working conditions against the pro-business, pro-corporate agendas of most state legislatures and the federal government. The pandemic has laid austerity politics bare and we should seize this opportunity to organize workers and build the world we want and deserve.