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Not Much for Labor to Cheer on Labor Day 

Oregon workers don’t have much to celebrate this Labor Day weekend, according to a report  issued today by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

“Not surprisingly, for most Oregon workers the state of affairs is a tough one,” the report says. “In particular:

  • The wages of a typical Oregon worker last year were lower than in 1979 when adjusted for inflation.
  • Income inequality — the gap separating the wealthy from the rest — remains wide, despite drops in income across the wage scale.
  • Jobs are expected to remain scarce over the next few years, making it hard for workers to demand better wages.”

The Great Recession has hit workers at the lower end of the wage scale hardest, the OCPP found. Average pay statewide increased 0.6% in 2009, compared with 2.4% in 2008 and 3.9% in 2007. But low- and medium-wage workers – those in the 20th to 50th percentiles – actually have seen their wages fall when adjusted for inflation. They lost from 3.5% to nearly 4% in real terms between 2001 and 2007.

In fact, when wages are adjusted for inflation, those Oregon workers are earning less now than they were 30 years ago: “The average hourly wage for median-wage workers was $15.85 in 2009, down from $16.09 in 2001 and lower than the 1979 level of $16.12.”

Higher-wage workers – those at the 80th percentile – have seen some improvement: Their wages have risen 10.7% since 1979 and 4.9% between 2001 and 2009. The inflation-adjusted average hourly wage for those workers in 2009 was $27.07.

But when you look at incomes instead of just wages, “the picture that emerges of the past 30 years is one of growing income inequality,” the report says. The median income for all Oregon households in 2008 (the latest year for which the figures are available) was 1.5% lower than in 1980, when adjusted for inflation. But over the same period, the average real income for the wealthiest 1% of the state’s households rose by an awesome 138%.

“Even though income dropped for this wealthiest group as a result of the [current] recession, they still maintained gains this decade,” the OCPP said in a press release.

Also, “While most Oregonians continue to feel the effects of the Great Recession, some CEOs of Oregon-based corporations keep making ‘fortunes.’ … [A]verage compensation among the 40 highest-paid CEOs of Oregon-based public companies in 2009 was $1.9 million – nearly 40 times the average annual earnings of Oregon workers generally.”

The one “bright spot” that the OCPP could find in the picture, such as it is, is that despite the recession – or maybe because of it – a higher percentage of Oregon workers belong to unions now.

“Union members made up 17.0% of Oregon's workforce in 2009, higher than the low-point of 13.8% in 2006 and the highest figure seen since 1997,” the press release said. “Unions substantially boost wages and benefits for workers they represent, especially for low-wage workers. … For example, data for 2003-07 show that the typical worker in Oregon got a 16.5% wage boost by being in a union, while the lowest-paid [union] workers saw a wage gain of 21.1%.”

According to the release, OCPP Executive Director Chuck Sheketoff  “said that the change is related in part to the loss of [non-union] jobs in the recession, but that membership growth may also be related to unions' success in reaching out to workers in new industries.”

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