It’s time to do more to help Oregonians who are struggling to stay in — or get to — the middle class.

That was the premise of a June summit where a few dozen union members and elected union leaders from across the state met. The attendees represented virtually every sector of our economy. The ideas we discussed may seem basic, but unfortunately it’s a conversation that is happening only in a few places around the country.

For decades, our wages nationally have been stagnant when adjusted for inflation, and in Oregon they’ve even dipped below the national average. Many industries that once paid a living wage have been decimated, with those jobs replaced by temporary and low-paying jobs. At the same time, corporations are reporting record profits.

Throughout all this, hundreds of thousands of Oregonians have been diligently working, but falling further and further behind. They aren’t “someone else” — they are our friends and neighbors, and maybe our own families. As Oregonians have lost ground, we’ve left more families reliant on fewer resources, and this is making it harder to recruit the best jobs to our state.

It’s causing a crisis in our communities. We have to do something different.

Union members in Oregon have always worked together for change. We support each other when we’re negotiating for safer working conditions or a fairer wage in the workplace. We work together to fight ballot measures that would weaken our economy. We stand together against bad legislation that would hurt working people. And now we’re focusing on creating good jobs, and working together to support Oregonians who are asking for help forming a new union.

In Washington County, there are more than 20,000 union members. And there are thousands more workers who want help forming a union. The Oregon AFL-CIO and its member unions are working to use our resources to help more workers gain the representation and respect they are seeking in their workplace.

We’ve helped over 3,000 more Oregonians form unions in the last year. This includes cab drivers, Head Start workers and beauticians. We’ve worked with employers to ensure that the people working on new projects are paid fairly, have the opportunity to negotiate safer working conditions and have a voice in the workplace. And I’m happy to report unions are committed to doing even more to rebuild the middle class.

The recent summit brought together representatives of workers from across our economy to commit to helping even more people. Whether workers are looking to form a union or to create more good jobs in Oregon, the labor movement is there and ready to help. We will help Oregon workers, and we will help Oregon’s economy.

We know union members, on average, earn more than workers without a union in similar jobs. We also know our economy has weakened as we’ve lost high-wage union jobs. If we can support more workers who are looking for help forming a union, if we can help raise Oregon wages back above the national average, if we can work with our employers and our schools to ensure Oregon is ready for more jobs, we can help to turn around our state’s economy.

But the first step has to be helping more workers get ahead. That’s why unions in Oregon are trying something new. You may not see a difference immediately. But over time we hope you’ll see more Oregonians making a living wage, more workers gaining respect on the job and a growing economy led by the real economic drivers in our state: the people like you and I who work for a living.

David Rives is president of the American Federation of Teachers-Oregon, representing educators throughout the state, including faculty and staff at Portland Community College (where he is a teacher) and staff at Hillsboro schools.

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