The spreading fight for 15

November 18, 2014

Jamie Partridge, a retired postal worker and steering committee member of 15 Now PDX, reports on successes for the movement for a $15 an hour and a union.

LAST WEEK, public employees in Portland and the surrounding area became the latest group of Oregon workers to win a $15-an-hour minimum wage.

The workers, members of AFSCME Local 88, won the raise in the union's new contract with Multnomah County. It is expected to be approved by the Board of Country Commissioners in December. Under the agreement, the pay for the county's lowest-paid workers will rise to $15 by July 2016.

Local 88's victory came soon after the news that two other groups of public-sector workers in Portland had won a $15 wage floor: seasonal park rangers, who organized a union with Laborers Local 483 the year before, and workers at Home Forward (formerly the Housing Authority of Portland), who are members of AFSCME 3135 and Laborers 290.

The Fight for 15 is spreading on the West Coast. The first breakthrough came in November 2013 when a referendum victory made Sea-Tac, Wash., the first city in the country with a $15-an-hour minimum wage. Unfortunately, a judge then ruled that the city didn't have the authority to apply the new law to workers at the Sea-Tac International airport, which is by far the largest low-wage employer in town.

Portland's 15 Now campaign on the march
Portland's 15 Now campaign on the march (15 Now PDX)

In June of this year, Seattle made national news by becoming the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage law, though business interests were able to sneak in loopholes that will keep some workers from reaching the new minimum for up to seven years. The Seattle law was the culmination of the "15 Now" campaign that coalesced around socialist Kshama Sawant's successful bid for City Council the previous November.

Momentum continued to grow over the summer, in Los Angeles first, when SEIU Local 99 won a $15 an hour minimum wage for all school workers. Later, the City Council passed a law guaranteeing $15 for all workers in the city's large hotels. Both minimums will go into full effect within two years. Finally, on November 4, San Francisco voters approved a bill that will bring raise the city's minimum wage to $15 by 2018.

Two years ago, when fast-food workers went on strike in New York for $15 and a union, their demand seemed like a dream, a fantasy. Then, fast-food workers in Detroit, Chicago, St. Louis and city after city made the same demand. During a day of action and strikes in September, 150 cities saw fast-food strikes, with thousands of workers taking up the call for $15 and a union. Hundreds got arrested in civil disobedience protests, and they were joined by home health care workers.

Over the past few years, Walmart workers have also stood up for $15 and a union, most recently with a sit-down strike in a Los Angeles store on November 13. Organizers with the OUR Walmart campaign expect this year's Black Friday protests to be the largest yet, with demonstrations expected at 1,600 stores.

On the same day as the sit-down in the Los Angeles Walmart, federal contract workers in Washington, D.C., staged a one-day strike outside of well-known government buildings, including the Capitol. The D.C. action, organized by the Good Jobs Nation campaign backed by SEIU, also called for 15 and a union.


IN PORTLAND, a new group called 15 NOW PDX was formed this spring following the Seattle victory. 15 NOW PDX worked alongside the City Council campaign of Nic Caleb, who was inspired by Sawant's victory. While Caleb did not win, his campaign helped build the $15 movement in Portland. Momentum has continued to build as 15 NOW PDX accumulates endorsements and resource pledges from many local and state unions, particularly from the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), which organized much of the national fast food and home care actions.

While Portland has seen little in the way of low-wage workers' job actions, 15 NOW PDX has been reaching out to the working poor through street petitioning, with plans for workplace canvassing. The response has been extremely positive--many have heard about the Seattle and San Francisco victories, are excited by the prospect of $15 and a union, and love the "Fight for 15" and associated slogans: Portland Needs a Raise, The Rent is Too Damn High, and Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Poverty Wages Got to Go!

Portland activists can't win a citywide rise in the minimum wage, as in San Francisco and Seattle, because of a state law "pre-empting" cities and counties from raising the minimum above the state level. So 15 NOW PDX has focused on pressuring the City Council to bump up city contract workers--including janitors, security guards, parking attendants, and stadium workers--to $15.

On October 21, a community hearing on the city's Fair Wage Policy drew over a hundred low-wage workers and allies, who testified about their struggle to live on poverty wages before representatives of a city commissioner and the mayor. On November 15, a local Labor Notes organizing committee partnered with 15 NOW to bring union leaders from Seattle and San Francisco to speak to scores of Portland unionists about how to orient the labor movement to the $15 fight.

Seeking to lift the state "pre-emption" and to bring 15 NOW statewide, the Portland group is backing two pieces of legislation: one to raise the state minimum wage to $15 with a phase-in over two years for businesses with less than 10 employees, and another which would eliminate the pre-emption prohibiting localities from raising the minimum wage. Plans are in the works for a big rally on the Capitol steps January 24, followed by a statewide gathering of $15 activists.

15 NOW chapters are springing up in Salem, Eugene, Medford, Beaverton and The Dalles. Organizers are preparing to take $15 to a statewide ballot initiative, if the effort at the state legislature is unsuccessful. More information can be found at www.15NOWpdx.org.

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