Oregon’s Highest Paid Union Bosses
Tuesday, June 02, 2015
Ten leaders of the state’s largest union, Service Employees International Union (SEIU), are receiving more than $100,000 annually. Similarly, Oregon’s chapter of the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) also has 10 leaders earning six-figures, despite having fewer than half the members and significantly less financial assets of their peer union, SEIU.
“They get those salaries because they can,” said senior policy analyst Steve Buckstein of the Cascade Policy Institute, a free-market think-tank based in Oregon. “Where you have economic power, you use it to maximize your own salaries, and [those salaries] are the result.”
Growing Economic Power
This growing economic power could be linked to the rising rate of union membership in Oregon, which has bucked the national trend of stagnation and decline. In 2014, union members accounted for 15.6 percent of wage and salary workers in Oregon, compared to 13.9 percent in 2013, according to statistics released this year by the U.S. Department of Labor. This is over a 12 percent increase in membership in one year.
“With more members, there is more infrastructure and more power to collectively bargain, especially if you’re looking to set a high standard of wages and working conditions,” said Russel Sanders, communications director of Oregon AFL-CIO, a federation of the state’s labor unions.
“If you look at Washington, Oregon, and California, the coastal Pacific Northwest states, there has been a political climate that is more favorable towards unions,” said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. “As unions expand their membership, they provide more and more services on behalf of their members, and to be a leader of an organization like that is an enormous amount of responsibility… I think it really does have some of the trappings of a job akin to what a CEO would have in the corporate world.”
Contrary to the “mushrooming” salaries of CEOs in the private sector, union leaders’ salaries often stay within two or three times the amount of their average member. Though many earn over twice the state median salary of $46,850, Bussel says that most union members would say the benefits and protections they are provided with is worth what they must pay in dues.
“To work at the executive level of union leadership is a lot negotiating contracts, political work, and administration and organization work,” Bussel said. “With the amount of hours, nights, and weekends they put in, it’s quite a rigorous job.”
In contrast, Buckstein argues that union leaders’ salaries are taking advantage of Oregon’s “fair share” workers, or those who do not belong to a union but are still required to the costs of union representation.
“CEOs and union leaders get their salaries approved by their boards,” Buckstein said. “The difference is, nobody is required to buy products from corporations in the private sector. But those that don’t want to belong still pay dues to the union leaders.”
Buckstein cited a poll conducted for the National Employee Freedom Week, which asked adults across the country if employees should have the right to decide whether or not to join a union. Of the 500 respondents from Oregon, 84 percent voted yes.
“It’s simply unfair for unions to require people to pay dues who don’t want to pay dues and don’t want to be represented by a union,” Buckstein said.
Oregon’s two largest unions, SEIU and AFSCME, both stopped collecting “fair share” dues in July after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against them in a case involving home-care workers in Illinois. For most unions in Oregon, however, “fair share” dues are still in place, and the odds of that changing in the state legislature is slim, Buckstein says.
“The majority of legislators would definitely be opposed [to a legislative change], but in the future, hopefully there will be an initiative that would make Oregon a “right-to-work” state,” Buckstein said. “We don’t want to create more rules and regulations regarding what unions do, but we want to allow the freedom for workers to pay or not pay their dues.”
Cutting mandatory dues would be a “serious political blow” to Oregon’s labor unions, Bussel said. Without compulsory fees, union membership rates would likely cease to rise – and, in fact, start to decline. Additionally, with less revenue coming from membership dues, salaries for those in executive positions might also start to decline.
But opponents of this argument say that declining membership would actually hurt union members the most – not their high-paid union presidents or executive directors.
“We are absolutely opposed to any ballot measure that would make Oregon a “fair share” state,” Sanders said. “Any time there’s a ballot measure that seeks to reduce power of the unions, that’s not something that we’re going to be in favor of.”
Related Slideshow: Highest Paydays at Oregon’s 25 Largest Unions
These salaries reflect the most recent financial filings by these unions, and may have since been changed.
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