How do we get all the way to 15 in Oregon?

June 8, 2016

A recent minimum wage law in Oregon is a step forward, but it illustrates some pitfalls that labor must avoid, write Jamie Partridge and Christopher Zimmerly-Beck.

IN FEBRUARY, the Oregon legislature passed a minimum wage increase that was hailed as the largest in the country. Since then, California and New York raised their minimum wages a bit higher and faster.

Unlike any other state, Oregon's law sets up a tiered system. Over a six-year phase-in, wages will slowly rise, reaching a peak in 2022. In Portland--Oregon's most populated city--the top level in 2022 will be $14.75 an hour. Residents of mid-range populated areas will see the minimum wage slowly climb to $13.25, while the state's rural communities, where poverty is often most extreme, will get a minimum of just $12.50 an hour.

While it's not the raise Oregonians need or deserve, it's the raise we're getting--at least for now--and it will make a real difference.

According to the Oregon AFL-CIO, 100,000 workers will get a wage increase this July. Even a meager raise will have a positive effect on people's daily lives, and the fight for reforms like these can teach working people valuable lessons, which make us stronger for the next fight, whatever that may be.

Fight for 15 activists take their message through Portland
Fight for 15 activists take their message through Portland (15 Now PDX)

But the disappointments for workers in this legislation are the direct result of Oregon's Democratic Party establishment prioritizing business interests over the needs of ordinary working people. The law was passed in an effort to head off labor unions from backing a ballot measure that would have raised wages across the state to $15 an hour.

For many workers, especially those living in poverty, any minimum wage increase is reason to celebrate. But as Oregon's statewide housing crisis continues to deepen, it's clear that the raise won't be enough. According to the MIT Living Wage Calculator, even in rural counties, working families in Oregon already need $15 an hour to get by. Getting to $12.50 an hour in 2022 just won't cut it.

THE LEGISLATION was used consciously by politicians beholden to big business to demobilize the Fight for 15.

Before the legislative session, leading Democrats like House Speaker Tina Kotek were promising to rescind the state law that forbids municipalities like city governments from raising their own minimum wage. With that lifted, cities in Oregon would be able to increase wages like Seattle and others have done.

Ultimately, though, Kotek and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment sided with business, and the restriction remains on the books.

Initially, Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, told the Oregonian that the Democrats' minimum wage bill "falls short of what workers need to support their families." But the state federation quickly changed its position, and once Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill into law, it declared "a win for Oregon workers."

While state labor leaders championed the Democrats' legislation and political leaders patted themselves on the back, Fight for 15 activists, including organized and unorganized workers, were left feeling betrayed by the politicians and union leaders they were working with. In a statement announcing the suspension of its campaign for a stronger minimum wage ballot measure, the 15 NOW coalition declared:

State leaders aren't just congratulating themselves for passing a minimum wage bill. Governor Brown has not been shy in publicly proclaiming that one of her primary motivations in getting a minimum wage bill passed is to undercut and eliminate the grassroots minimum wage movement and ballot measures that were stronger than the SB 1532 compromise. Unfortunately, while the bill utterly fails to create a living wage and bring low-wage workers out of poverty, it was successful at undercutting support for a statewide $15 ballot measure in 2016.

Instead of allowing people to vote on a ballot measure and decide for themselves what the minimum wage should be, Democrats and labor leaders chose to side with business lobbyists in direct opposition to the interests of the majority of Oregonians.

Part of the reason that the Democratic Party was able to head off the efforts of activists fighting for the $15 ballot measure is where unions have chosen to put their resources: the halls of the state legislature. When we focus on lobbying efforts over building workplace power and demonstrations in the streets, we place ourselves at a disadvantage.

Oregon's legislative outcome was only as good as it was because of street actions, packed hearing rooms, sit-ins and the 15 NOW coalition gathering 40,000 signatures for a ballot initiative--almost half the needed amount. But the money necessary to finance a full-on campaign that could have come up with enough signatures needed to come from the big unions, which opted out in favor of not straining their relationship with Oregon's political establishment.

In California, where the legislative outcome was better and not three-tiered like in Oregon, the big unions backed and completed petitioning for a $15-an-hour ballot measure. The New York state minimum wage measure is the best in the country, even with a neoliberal, austerity-pushing Democratic governor and a Republican-dominated Senate--because both were under pressure from a Fight for 15 grounded in the fast-food strikes that began there.

Simply put, workers don't have power in the electoral arena in the same way that business interests do--we don't have the money, relationships or position that politicians and business interests share. This is especially true in the U.S., where both mainstream political parties are financed and run in the interests of the wealthy.

IN ORDER to move forward and achieve a $15 minimum wage in Oregon, we should assess what the movement has been through. We should remember that the Fight for 15 started with strikes and protests, and that the movement's demand is $15 an hour and a union.

Organizing campaigns are how Multnomah County workers, city workers in Portland and Milwaukie, and more than 20,000 union home care workers won $15 an hour. These were solid victories for the Fight for 15. They weren't won by depending on lobbying politicians, but through organizing.

Since February, a new set of Oregon workers, inspired by the 15 NOW movement, have stepped into the battle. The Burgerville Workers Union, an independent grouping of fast-food workers, assisted by the Industrial Workers of the World, has kicked off an organizing campaign at five fast food restaurants. Demanding a $5-an-hour raise, affordable health care, paid parental leave, child care and transportation, the Burgerville workers are using direct action--including marches, shop-ins, delegations to corporate headquarters and picket lines--to push forward their fight.

A Portland Area Campaign for 15, anchored by the local Jobs with Justice chapter, Service Employees International Union Local 49, UNITE HERE Local 8 and AFSCME Council 75, is coordinating several campaigns for a $15 wage--at Portland State University, for janitors in downtown Portland and against multiple employers at the airport.

Lobbying politicians and voting for the lesser evil with the hope of having a seat at the table is a dead end. One of the major lessons for Fight for 15 activists should be that our self-activity--our ability to organize our workplaces, to stand in solidarity with one another, to demand a union and to strike--is the way forward if we want to fight the poverty caused by capitalism.

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