Oregon deserves a fight for 15

December 1, 2015

Christopher Zimmerly-Beck reports on the struggle for a $15 minimum wage in Oregon and the role that organized labor needs to play in order to win.

MORE THAN 100 labor unions and faith and community groups in Oregon have endorsed raising the minimum wage across the state to $15 an hour. Endorsers include Oregon's biggest labor organizations, such as the Oregon AFL-CIO, AFSCME Council 75, UFCW Local 555, Oregon Education Association (OEA) and SEIU Local 503.

Three polls taken in the last year, published in the Salem Statesman-Journal, the Oregonian and the Portland Tribune, show that over 50 percent of Oregonians support a $15 minimum wage. Polling nationally is even higher.

Oregon unions such as SEIU and AFSCME have won $15 an hour minimum wages for union home care workers, as well as city, county, metro, and public contract workers. Airport workers are organizing through SEIU and UNITE HERE in a fight for $15 and a union.

Social workers at the nonprofit Janus Youth Programs were inspired by the Fight for 15 to organize a union of their own and joined AFSCME over the summer with the hopes of winning $15 an hour.

Multiple sources--including MIT's Living Wage Calculator, National Low Income Housing Coalition, Alliance for a Just Society and the University of Washington Self-Sufficiency Standard--show that $15 an hour is the minimum needed to bring workers out of poverty in Oregon. More than 200 economists support a $15 an hour minimum wage at the federal level.

Marching for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Portland, Oregon
Marching for a $15 an hour minimum wage in Portland, Oregon (15 Now PDX)

In Oregon, an initiative is underway--Oregonians for 15--to get a measure on the ballot that would raise the state minimum wage to $15 by 2019, and it won strong backing from sections of the labor movement.

Nationally, support for $15 has become a groundswell, as workers have won phased-in minimum-wage increases in major cities like Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and New York, where fast-food workers now have a path to $15 an hour. In just three years, the demand has gone from a grandiose idea to common sense. Even champions of austerity like Vice President Joe Biden and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo have stated support for it.

With so much support accumulating behind this struggle, then why have some labor leaders in Oregon backed down from the demand for a $15 an hour state minimum wage?

INSTEAD OF assisting fast-food workers and Walmart workers in organizing worker-led strikes and other actions that broaden the fight, organized labor in Oregon has focused largely on top-down legislative activity. For those hoping to see a wage increase, the results of this orientation have been disastrous.

The Democratic Party holds enough seats in the legislature to raise the minimum wage without any Republican support, but many Democrats refuse to do so out of a fear of alienating their real friends--big business. But instead of admitting that they oppose a wage increase, House Speaker Tina Kotek and other Democratic Party leaders have held a possible future wage increase out to unions, like a carrot on the end of a stick.

At the end of the last legislative session in June, after stalling through the entire period, Kotek proposed a wage increase to $13 an hour, knowing even that wouldn't get the votes it needed.

Kotek's maneuvering set the stage for another round of lobbying during the legislature's special session in February. In preparation, staff and elected leaders of various unions, including UFCW, SEIU Local 503 and AFSCME Council 75, have begun to play down their support for $15 an hour and are rallying behind the Democratic Party's promised $13.50.

Kotek also says her plan would lift preemption provisions in Oregon's wage policy that prohibit cities like Portland from raising wages above the state wage. Raising the preemption would be a good step, but Kotek is only using the offer as leverage to convince labor to support lower wages.

Labor's retreat from the fight for $15 in Oregon is having a demoralizing effect on organized and unorganized workers who desperately need relief from today's stagnant economy.

"Even if the union professionals think that $13.50 is all they can get from the legislature, why would they drop the $15 demand?" asked Jamie Partridge, a chief petitioner for the Oregonians for 15 ballot initiative campaign. "Why go into negotiations with one arm tied behind your back? We'll end up with $12 or $11 that way."

Union lobbyists point to a March 2015 poll that shows $13.50 is polling better than $15. Instead of catching the spirit of the national fight for $15 and mobilizing workers in workplaces and on the streets to build workers' confidence and strengthen the labor movement, top labor officials are letting Democratic Party politicians and their friends in business call the shots.

Instead of taking lessons from the groundswell of strikes for $15 and a union, the movement that has thrust the number 15 onto the national stage, and the outpouring of support that workers have demonstrated for $15 through actions like the April 15 national day of action, in which 60,000 low-wage workers went on strike in 250 cities, major Oregon union leaders are relying on what Democratic legislators tell them is "possible."

Instead of having faith in low-wage workers who are joining the movement every day and instead of investing time, talent and money in boosting the poll numbers over the next year and supporting a $15 ballot initiative for the November 2016 elections and winning the wages workers deserve, labor officials are actively demobilizing the struggle by shifting resources to a new campaign called Raise the Wage Oregon, which advocates for $13.50.

15 NOW, which kicked off in Seattle during the struggle to win a $15 an hour minimum wage citywide, got going in Oregon in early 2014. Through rank-and-file organizing in unions and bottom-up community mobilizations, 15 Now seemed to have united Oregon's entire labor movement, including the Oregon AFL-CIO, OEA, SEIU and UFCW behind support for a $15 minimum wage.

For six months, through the 2015 state legislative session, the unified message at rallies, marches and hearings was for $15. But when it was clear the legislature was unwilling to pass a raise, 15 Now activists filed the Oregonians for 15 ballot initiative in April based on the legislative bill that would raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2019.

Then in July, a group of labor lobbyists convinced their union leaders to adopt the Democrats' $13.50 demand, dragging a layer of organized labor into their Raise the Wage campaign. Rank-and-file $15 activists were outraged at their leaders' betrayal, angry that their union staff and resources were now mobilizing members to support the lower number, drying up funds that had gone to support 15 Now.

At the state AFL-CIO convention in late October, the demand for $15 was raised again in the form of a resolution, backed by 12 unions, to endorse the $15 ballot initiative. But while the resolution passed the convention--unanimously--the victory is purely symbolic, as the $13.50 campaign will continue to get the time, talent and treasure of the major unions.

As 15 Now accelerates its now all-volunteer signature gathering in 20 Oregon cities, activists struggle to reorient their labor movement, back to the fight for $15.

Union members, and unorganized low-wage workers need to challenge Oregon's labor leaders to stop tailing the Democrats and to support living wages in Oregon, which means in the here and now supporting a statewide minimum wage of $15 an hour.

Jamie Partridge contributed to this article.

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