Running for 15 in Portland

May 14, 2014

Nicholas Caleb is a former Occupy activist who is running for City Council in Portland, Ore. Inspired by the victory of Kshama Sawant in Seattle, his campaign is based on growing the movement for a $15 minimum wage and other struggles across the city.

Portland's movement for a $15 minimum wage is small at this point, but it's growing. And the fact that two radical candidates in two big cities can use their campaigns as platforms to promote and build important working-class struggles shows one of the ways we can get a wider hearing. Caleb is backed by the 15 Now campaign, the Portland International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, the Pacific Green Party, Bike Walk Vote and other groups. Dele Balogun and Jamie Partridge interviewed Caleb about the Fight for 15 and other working-class struggle, and his campaign.

WHAT MADE you decide to run for City Council?

I WAS following a lot of developments around the fast-food workers' strikes and 15 Now, and believed that we have a lot of untapped energy that could push these movements forward. On the heels of the Sawant victory, we believed that we could quickly put together a campaign and draw attention to working-class issues.

At the time, the teachers were about to go on strike, the Portland State University (PSU) professors and city workers were close to going on strike, and the longshore workers were still locked out. The idea was that we'd put forward a broad working-class framework that would not only give support to 15 Now, but also give support to all these struggles that were going on.

HOW HAS the Sawant campaign shaped your view of the role of socialists running for and holding elected office in the U.S.?

SINCE SHE'S taken office, she's been tremendous. She's been a warrior for pushing the issue of 15 Now. She continues to organize people. They have rapid response teams in neighborhoods in parts of the city of Seattle.

Nicholas Caleb
Nicholas Caleb

She didn't just use strong messaging to get elected and then fall into the scene. After the "fake 15" came out from the Seattle City Council, she said no. They asked, "Why won't you compromise?" She asked, "Why won't Starbucks compromise?"

YOU'VE SAID that it's more important to build movements than it is to win this election.

PART OF this campaign is to get people to see that the issues they care about are really widespread. They see the possibility that a candidate might win on these issues, and that makes it more real for some people.

15 Now started here in Portland with just a handful of our people. All of a sudden, it's catching on quickly--and this is the point. People who are affected most by wealth inequality are seeing that you can talk about these things in the political arena and participate in a broad-based coalition to put them forward.

Having more organized working-class movements is the goal. And a $15 minimum wage is an issue that's really affecting people now. The number of people who are on minimum wage is increasing. There are college graduates who are earning minimum wage for decades at a time.

It's an issue that affects women and people of color and pretty much all the constituencies that would make up a broad working-class movement. It's a national issue, and it's something we could do right away--and show that we could actually organize and win.

ONE OF your main slogans has been "Everyone has a right to the city"--meaning the homeless, the poor, people of color and immigrants. Gentrification is a major economic force pushing people out of Portland. Tell us about how you propose we fight gentrification.

THERE ARE two ways to fight gentrification. One is what we've been talking about--raising wages so people can afford to live. But there has to be some form of rent control, and there has to be a slew of anti-displacement policies that totally reorganizes how our development works.

Instead of just going for the biggest projects that will yield the most revenue, the city could buy up vacant plots of land and then ask neighborhoods what they want. If people wanted to build affordable housing, we could do it.

Oregon's housing policies are terrible. We're pre-empted from imposing rent control or inclusionary zoning--two policies we could do right now to slow down gentrification.

POLICE BRUTALITY and abuse has been a major problem in Portland. How do you propose we fight and organize against this?

PORTLAND HAS a history of being an extremely segregated and openly racist town, and the police have been an integral part of this structure. We have to de-militarize and disarm the police and end the stop-and-frisk policy. And we need a citizen-run review board with the ability to subpoena, cross-examine and dismiss police officers. The police have full impunity.

WHEN YOU spoke alongside Kshama Sawant in Portland recently, you said, "Capitalism is insane." Can you expand on this?

CAPITALISM IS insane because it drives global inequality in every possible way and because it pushes us toward environmental destruction. We have an economic system of total endless growth. In order to continue its growth machine, capitalists bought into being the crisis-ridden financial sector. We saw the effects of it in 2008 and onward when people ended up getting kicked out of their homes.

We live in an age of unprecedented technology, so where is all the leisure time? One of capitalism's imperatives is growth, but the other is domination and control--putting people in cubicles, making them work jobs that don't really do anything, with a lot of mid-level managers.

We have the tools to address inequities, but these tools are not put into motion under capitalism. These reforms that we want, these revolutionary changes, are not going to be handed down to us. The people who actually make this machine work have the power to halt the machine by stopping their labor.

YOUR ACTIVISM in Portland began with involvement in Occupy. What impact do you think the message of Occupy has had on working-class consciousness?

WORKING-CLASS consciousness shifted quickly during Occupy. All of a sudden, you could talk about wealth inequality and not be labeled a lunatic or a whiner. Occupy was beaten off the streets, but the conversation keeps coming back, and now open socialists are taking seats in big cities, like in Seattle. Even the Democrats have to give it lip service.

It activated a lot of rank-and-file union workers to put more pressure on their leadership to broaden what unions think is possible. A good example of that is with the teachers' strike. A lot of people who were pushing hard for that were around with Occupy, and they were able to make the teachers' demands community demands. I don't think that would have happened if Occupy hadn't allowed for that space.

As far as my own development, I had a degree in law and another in policy, and I was on track to become an attorney, but as soon as Occupy began, I had a huge shift. In a three- or four-month period, I was exposed to a lot of ideas that terrified me, but I had the space to investigate and learn and meet a ton of people.

Since then, I've learned how to say no to all the compromises with all the contradictions we have to live in the U.S. A lot of other people joined in. For me, it was revolutionary.

OREGON CURRENTLY has a state pre-emption law preventing cities from setting their own minimum wage. What will it take to win $15 an hour in Oregon?

IN OREGON, it will probably take a ballot initiative. In Portland, in the short term, the pre-emption stops us from a traditional raise in the minimum wage, so I've proposed what I'm calling a Living Wage Tax or a Reverse Walmart policy.

Today, Walmart feeds their employees into taxpayer-supported services so they won't have to pay a living wage. Under my plan, we would tax employers who won't pay $15 an hour. Except it would be a progressive tax so that the largest employers--your Walmarts, your Targets, your McDonalds--would be taxed at a much higher rate than the small businesses.

The money collected would be distributed as a social dividend so that any employee not earning $15 could go down to the revenue bureau and collect the rest of their check. It might be more attractive than a straight minimum wage. We could be a national leader in mass redistributive policies.

FOR A ballot initiative like this, the statewide campaign would have to be massive. A lot of movement and rank-and-file union forces would have to be set into motion.

YES, BUT raising the minimum wage is very popular. When the argument is made that the system will collapse if the wage is raised by 70 percent, you just have to ask: Does the system collapse when all these profits go to the 1 Percent? I want to have those discussions. It doesn't take much to get through these arguments.

So if organized right, it's an issue that the unions could get behind. 15 Now is a way for unions to expand and organize nonunion workers and to get a concrete win for a lot of other workers. That's when you really start to move forward. That's why in Seattle, the council is trying hard to undercut the victory.

A SPECIAL committee created by the Seattle mayor, which is stacked with business leaders, has decided to try to ram through a watered-down $15 minimum wage bill. What do you think about this latest bill, and what do you see as the next steps for the Seattle 15 Now campaign?

I LIKED the way Kshama came out condemning all the exemptions and phase-ins. It's designed to make her and the broader movement look unreasonable. All of these powerful business interests came together, and even organized labor was at the table, which gave it the appearance of being balanced.

Well, it's a small increase for some people for a while, no increase at all for others when you factor in tip credit and insurance compensation, but even 15 itself is a compromise.

If you're a mother in a city and you're trying to pay for child care, that's a majority of your check. Then there's rent and food. So with all these exemptions for tips and health insurance, it's basically crap. So I think it's great that Sawant and Socialist Alternative are planning to take it to the ballot.

DO YOU think this Seattle tactic will be mimicked in Portland?

DEFINITELY. BUT we'd have to continue to build the movement locally, expand into neighborhoods and then gear up for a ballot initiative fight.

THE 15 Now campaign and the fast food and Walmart strikes are an example of how even nonunion, private-sector workers can help to build what could develop into a national working-class movement.

YES, THEY'RE driving the national movement. These are risks that people are taking without any protection at all--already on the edge, in deep poverty, basically risking the only employment they have to push this forward. These are some of the most inspiring and encouraging developments we've seen in a long time.

Portland has seen what were to be imminent teachers' and students' strikes, and the PSU professors' struggle back to back. I am so happy that people are ready to say no and walk out on strike to get what they need. That all these groups were taking these steps at the same time was inspiring.

The people in each of these groups and the community organized so well to get the support they would need to run successful strikes. I told the teachers at my candidate interview that I was kind of let down that they didn't strike. I think they would have gotten everything they wanted and more. They had the community support. It would have been an amazing spectacle that opened up a political space.

I think if the teachers had gone on strike, the professors would have gone on strike, and probably the city workers would have gone on strike. If that had happened, workers' consciousness would have been driven forward much faster.

SOME HAVE said that we could have virtually shut down the city with what was planned between the teacher strike, the AAUP struggle, and the planned demonstrations, not to mention the city workers, as you just said.

YES, THAT'S the closest to a general strike that we've been. But even without that, in a short amount of time, they went from believing they could never strike to overwhelming majorities in favor.

Pretty soon, the same issues are going to come up again, because the problems haven't been solved. People have been so beat down that we're not only concerned with material gains, but also issues of basic respect. That energy is going to continue to foment. If we continue to do our jobs as organizers, meeting people where they're at and educating them, next time this situation comes around, we'll be in a stronger position.

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