The United Auto Workers are the latest group to join what’s been called the “summer of strikes.” Members of the Writer’s Guild of America continue their monthslong strike, along with the actor’s union SAG-AFTRA. Several Pacific Northwest organizations have gone on strike this summer as well, from teachers to nurses to bookstore employees. Meanwhile, Oregon’s unemployment rate is as low as it’s ever been at 3.4%. Joining us to talk about the myriad factors affecting Oregon’s labor force is Mark Brenner, co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon.
The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:
Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The United Auto Workers are the latest union to join what’s been called the “summer of strikes.” Hollywood writers and actors are continuing their strikes. And several Northwest unions have mounted strikes in recent months as well. From teachers to nurses, to bookstore employees to strippers. Meanwhile, Oregon’s unemployment rate is as low as it’s ever been at 3.4%. Of course, that just counts people who want to be in the workforce to begin with. Mark Brenner joins us to talk about all of this. He is the co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. Welcome to the show.
Mark Brenner: Thanks for having me, Dave. Great to be here.
Miller: What’s the connection between the pandemic and the profusion of labor management conflicts that I just outlined? And that was a partial list.
Brenner: Well, I’ll use one example. The nurses up at the Oregon Health Sciences University are about to take a strike vote to authorize a potential labor action on the hill. And I’ve talked to many nurses up there and the phrase I keep hearing them use is, “We went from heroes to zeros.” During the height of the pandemic, people were on their porches banging pots and pans, celebrating the work we were doing, often without sufficient PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) or definitely not with sufficient staff. And as soon as the crisis ebbs, we’re forgotten and treated as if we’re disposable.
I think that is true in many, many front line workplaces where people worked throughout the pandemic, essential workers felt that they were sort of an afterthought after the crisis subsided, so to speak. And I think people are fed up and tired.
Miller: What about, say, white collar workers? That phrase maybe is less helpful but workers who, by virtue of their jobs, could work all or partly at home during much of the pandemic. That’s a different work situation. Where do you see the effects of that time on labor issues now?
Brenner: I think two things. We see people that maybe have a little bit more flexibility in their schedule. I think a lot of people ask themselves, “Is this really how I want to live my life,” in terms of the amount of hours they’re spending working or both spouses working full time jobs and trying to juggle family responsibilities for their kids. And we saw a huge exodus from the labor market for people who were like, “I’m not doing this anymore.” And I think people have just gotten a lot more choosy about what they’re willing to spend their time on.
And I’ve seen a lot of folks who have started to look back over the long view, about where their careers have taken them for not just the last five years, but the last 10 or 15 or 20 years. People are really not happy with the trajectory of a lot of their pay and benefits over that time compared with, say, what the average CEO is making.
Miller: Specific work-life balance expectations - what does that mean, in terms of asks of management?
Brenner: Well, obviously, the cost of living has been skyrocketing for all of us. But certainly those of us that are on the lower rungs of the income distribution bear that brunt more and feel it more acutely than those at the top. And I think people are starting to ask, “Why am I falling behind?” Especially folks who were working throughout the pandemic, when “I sacrificed so much to keep your operations going.” And so I think, just the combination of all the uncertainty that went into the early stage of the pandemic with, now, the cost pressures that we’ve seen with the last year and a half of inflation, really led people to say, “This is it. I need more. Do better.”
Miller: One of the things that we’ve heard in recent years, as employers tried to hire reluctant workers either back or just to hire them, was that they had to increase salaries to do that. But have salaries kept up with inflation?
Brenner: Certainly not at the lower end of the labor market. You are seeing this problem manifest itself in so many different places, Dave. I can just say, for one example that jumps to mind, I was talking to folks that work as paraprofessionals and classroom aides in Portland Public Schools, earlier this year. They were saying, “Why would I take this job which is highly stressful, physical, sometimes with kids that act out and we’re at risk of getting hit, scratched, bitten, when I can make more money working at Plaid Pantry?” It just doesn’t add up.
So we’ve really seen the squeeze in a lot of jobs which historically have paid better than the minimum wage, but the floor has just really shot up. And I think it’s affecting a whole swath of our labor market locally.
Miller: I’m glad you brought that up. Two things. One, I should say that assuming that the Portland Public School negotiations don’t, very quickly, figure themselves out, we will be talking more about that in the coming weeks. But in terms of the minimum wage, obviously there’s the federal minimum wage. Some states, including Oregon, have their own that are higher. But then there’s the effective minimum wage. That’s more just based on the market. For service sector jobs right now, many of which used to actually be tied to the wage floor that was required, what do you see in practice these days?
Brenner: Well, I don’t know, have you gone out to eat in a restaurant in the last two months? I mean, everywhere, we’re seeing the effects of the shortfall between cost of living and what it takes to actually keep a roof over your head in this city, and what you can earn in an entry level job. And I think the short staffing we’re seeing in the service sector is not a reflection…I mean, the employers will say, “Nobody wants to work. We can’t find anybody.” You can’t find anybody to work at the wages that you’re paying. If you were paying better wages, the staff would appear. That’s no question.
Miller: And what do you think that number is, broadly? Obviously, everybody’s situation isn’t the same but a couple of years ago, $15 was a kind of national rallying cry. Is there a different number now?
Brenner: I was in Klamath Falls a couple of weeks ago and I saw, on my way there, in Medford, McDonald’s advertising $18 an hour. So I think that what I’ve seen is somewhere between $18 and $20 as what employers are offering to get people in the door. And I think that really tells us where the entry level wages are in the Portland Metro, for sure. And probably across the state.
Miller: Just to go back to your example of a paraprofessional in Portland Public Schools. Looking at that and saying, “I could make more at a job that requires less of me, in some ways.” Is the market responsive enough to, over time, actually take that into account and raise the wages of people who are doing those different kinds of skilled jobs?
Brenner: I think that the last two decades makes it really clear that the answer is no. I think that’s why union favorability is at a 50-year high and people are starting to form unions in all kinds of atypical nontraditional segments of the workforce, whether it’s donut workers or strippers, as you mentioned earlier. I think that’s because people are recognizing this is not gonna take care of itself on its own. We’ve got to do something.
Miller: Where do you think automation fits into this? And I’m grouping there, AI as a new, and in some ways, unknown version of this, but also older versions of just machines physically doing people’s jobs, which has been with us for a very long time in different ways. But how does that fit into this conversation?
Brenner: Oh, I think this is at the heart of a couple of the labor actions that you mentioned at the beginning. The writer’s strike in Hollywood is absolutely about what role technology, particularly AI, is gonna play in the future of that industry. And the auto strike. Obviously they’re on the picket line, in part because the Big 3 made $20 billion in the first six months of this year. And they haven’t really been seeing their share of that. But it’s also about what role the unionized workforce in the Big 3 is gonna play in the future of the electric vehicle industry? Are we gonna be able to set union standards in those new and emerging segments of the automobile industry?
Miller: Most of what we have been talking about is our national trends. But do you see any distinctively Northwest pieces to this right now?
Brenner: I’m an optimist for our region, Dave. And I think that there’s a lot to be excited about in terms of where growth in the labor market is gonna come from and where rising standards are gonna fit in there. I think that all of the investments that we’re seeing from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act are gonna be huge for the state of Oregon. And obviously, the CHIPS Act is gonna be enormous for this region. Even though there was a lot of hand wringing over the plant that’s getting built in Ohio we’re gonna see a ton of investment in that sector in Oregon. To me, I see those programs as having an outsized impact on our region.
Miller: We just have about a minute left. But what sectors do you think right now have the biggest disconnect between employee expectations and employer offers?
Brenner: I think healthcare has got to be number one on my list. I’ve never seen frontline healthcare workers more pessimistic about their prospects in the industry and staying in the field of healthcare. I think the poll I saw most recently from OHSU was that 62% of frontline healthcare workers are considering leaving the field because of short staffing, because of inadequate pay, because of all of the experiences they had during the pandemic. So I would have to say healthcare is our biggest worry right now, as a sector, where there’s a disconnect between what’s going on on the ground and where the workforce is.
Miller: Mark Brenner, thanks very much.
Brenner: Thank you, Dave. Great to be here.
Miller: Mark Brenner is the co-director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon. He joined us to talk about both regional and nationwide labor issues, as the so-called “summer of strikes” is about to enter the fall.
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