When Workers Organize: Labor Unions Today
Jaimie Sorenson is a member of YNPN Portland who has also been a labor union member for over a decade. In our latest #nplabor piece, Jaimie shares her experience in today's labor movement.
I've been a member of a labor union for thirteen years. I didn’t come from a union family and knew nothing about unions before I joined one, except for what I had seen in a Jimmy Hoffa movie.
My education on unions was self-taught. It started when I left employment in the University Hospital I had worked in since high school and began working for a for-profit hospital. I was naïve to think that health insurance, sick leave and vacation time were standard across the industry.
I quickly learned I was wrong, so I returned to my former unionized employer. I decided to learn more about the union and get involved. Those pursuits lead me to pursue any opportunities my union offered, and they were ample.
I gained wonderful experiences at a very young age in presenting before hundreds of thousands of people, crafting workshops and creating new committees focused on issues my co-workers and I cared about. I found my voice in the union. Later I was elected to almost every officer position in the union and that eventually landed me in my current career as a union representative.
I’m often asked what it means to be a union rep. I usually explain by saying I’m in labor relations. I work with employers on a variety of issues: sometimes I’m in an advocacy role for the workers, bargaining contracts, and mediating workplace issues; at other times I’m helping to draft policies through negotiations, identifying cost savings and efficiencies for the employer and hopefully empowering workers as I’ve been empowered. I currently work with both public and nonprofit sector employees through Oregon AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).
Jaimie Sorenson with Sen. Jeff Merkley
Public and nonprofit sector employees both tend to be mission-focused, sometimes at their own expense. All too often in the nonprofit sector we tend to put the mission before the workers. I’m not advocating that anyone be less passionate about what they do. However, I do feel that workers need to be taken care of as well, and this is where a union can come into play.
I’ll give an example: One of the first contracts I ever negotiated was for group home workers who cared for developmentally disabled adults. The workers were very focused on fulfilling their mission and so was their employer, often to the extent that they ignored some of the basic needs the workers had. This resulted in big retention problems because the workers would burn out and move onto other employers.
This was very hard on the clients who didn’t understand why their friends, caregivers, and counselors were leaving them. In order to stop the floodgates, we need to address the problems that were causing the burn out.
As with many nonprofits, the main issue was funding. I worked with our lobbying team and headed to the state capitol to advocate for more funding for these types of organizations. I’m proud to report that we received an 8% increase in funding for all subsidized group homes in my state. This resulted in increased wages and the ability to hire more staff. Because of our union, these workers who serve one of the most vulnerable populations in our state no longer make the same wages as fast food workers.
Unions can be instrumental in ensuring that an employer has a sustainable operation. We share that interest with employers, thought that’s not the common public perception. We actually want to help ensure that the employer remains in business and is the best business it can be.
Unions can also help solve workplace issues, secure funding, work to defeat bad legislation and create helpful legislation as well. We advocate for workers, and in the long run when a worker is happy, the work is better. It’s a win-win for workers and business. As a union representative, I’ve had the pleasure of working with many employers who agree with this philosophy. I hope to see more organizations adopting this philosophy in the future.
Jaimie Sorenson is a staff representative for Oregon AFSCME (American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees).