Melissa Unger

Executive Director of SEIU Local 503

When did you attend the UO and what year did you graduate? What did you study at the UO?

I attended UO from 1997-2001 and graduated in 2001. I graduated with a degree in History and Sociology.

Was there a class that inspired you in a new way while at UO?

I loved my sociology classes. I went to college wanting to be a history teacher; that was my passion from the time I was young.  I got introduced to sociology and the study of groups and the dynamics of how and why people act and it changed my entire future.  Sociology of Religion, Sociology of Race, and nearly every class I took I found to be fascinating and opened my eyes.  It also really made me think about inequity in our systems, how they are created and maintained.

Was there an experience offered by UO that opened your eyes to something new?

Sociology impacted the way I thought about history and how groups of people interact and how that impacts history and the future.

My experience getting involved in OSPIRG and then student government put me on a path to be the person I am today. I first got involved because I received the Oregon Opportunity Grant, Oregon’s need based aid program, and I became a spokesperson against cutting the program.  That evolved into involvement with many student groups. I spent more time being active in groups than I did in class.  After graduating from college I had years of dreams that I forgot to go to class and didn’t graduate, because at times that felt like a real possibility because of how distracted I was being active.

I was active in two major movements on campus:

The effort to have the University join the Worker’s Right Consortium to hold large corporations accountable for workers’ rights in their factories across the world.  Through this movement I learned how to organize campaigns, how to run mini ballot measures, how to make sure we were escalating our demands when we weren’t heard and it was the first time I was arrested. I felt passionate that corporations that made a lot of profit could take the time to make sure workers were not working for pennies each hour in another country. 

I was also involved in the movement to create better guidelines for how the university reacted to racist language. Over a class list serve there were incidents of racist language from students and the professor and it was handled poorly.  Through action with student of color-led student groups, we demanded action and got the university to create policies. This campaign was shorted than the WRC, but was just as important. It was the second time I was arrested.

Also, study abroad my freshman year in college was transformative for me. I studied in Queretaro, Mexico.  I met a friend in the intro class and we decided to ride a bus from San Diego to Queretaro. I grew up on a family farm in Washington County, and had only really traveled outside of Oregon twice in my life. I learned about myself, about the world, about different cultures, about living in a city, and came back a changed person with a much different outlook on life. 

What was the number one skill you believe you acquired while at UO?

I learned how to be a public speaker. I did hundreds of class raps getting students registered to vote, and I learned how to organize people and campaigns.

What was something that challenged your way of thinking while at UO?

Everything challenged my way of thinking and changed me as a person. Sociology made me think about history in such a different way.  Traveling abroad opened my eyes to a much bigger world.  Student activism gave me a voice in a world where people like me often feel like they don’t have a voice.  The friends I met in college continue to help me grow every day. 

Share three words that describe what you like most about the UO today.

Access to college

What is your present or past career/occupation and/or what do you do for fun?

I left college and continued to do student organizing, first in California and then next in Oregon.  This work was great, giving students a voice in making college accessible and affordable.  I became a lobbyist at the age of 23, which was really eye-opening.

I am currently the executive director of SEIU Local 503, the public services and care provider union.  We are the largest union in Oregon and we work to make sure people have a voice on the job with quality wages and benefits that allow them to support their families.

I love to hang out with my kids who are 6 and 3. I like to watch Oregon football.  I like to go to movies.

How did your time at the UO impact your current experiences/successes?

When deciding which college to go to, it was between a small liberal arts college in California and UO.  I chose UO because I would graduate with less debt and get the Oregon Opportunity Grant.  I feel like that decision probably was one of the most defining of my lifetime.  There are other decisions that have impacted me, but UO made me who I am today. Getting involved, traveling abroad, learning, meeting new people—it set me a different path than I started when I began college.

What does the word “advocacy” mean to you?

Advocacy is the opportunity to have your voice heard in a community or political process. The challenge with advocacy is that voices are not equal.  People with more money and wealth have more advocacy---that is why unions are so important to help level the playing field and make sure workers can come together with other workers to amplify their voice.

What advice would you give people advocating for the UO about being an effective advocate?

Be sincere and honest and share your experience. Lawmakers talk to lobbyists all day, stories are what can change someone’s mind.

What is something you wish people knew about the advocacy process?

In Oregon, legislators listen. It is a process where someone can have an impact. 

Share an example or two of a time you felt successful advocating for something important to you.

When I was the political director for SEIU Local 503, we passed the 2015 fair shot agenda, increasing the minimum wage, passing paid sick leave, passing ban the box, creating rules to help end racial profiling, and creating Oregon Saves a retirement program for everyone.

When I worked at Oregon Student Association, I worked on tuition equity for five years and in 2011 (or 2013, I don’t remember) it finally passed. I felt that the work I had done a decade earlier made me a part of that win.