On February 12, 2016 the Oregon Senate passed an increase in the minimum wage in a 16 – 12 vote. It must now go to the State House before becoming law.
Such a vote would never have happened if it wasn’t for the campaign efforts of grassroots organizations such as 15 Now and the state’s labor union’s. For too many years state legislatures have been content to stand aside as the minimum wage dramatically fell below what is necessary for a decent living. What was different this time was that workers’ organizations, fueled by the momentum of the $15 Now movement nationally, were not going to take no for an answer when it comes to raising the minimum wage.
Does this bill provide what is needed for Oregon’s workers and their families? Does it at least come close enough or will we have to go through the expense of a ballot campaign in the Fall?
The plan slated to go to the House, known as Senate Bill 1532, would take six years to raise wages to $14.75 in the Portland Metro area (a 59 percent increase), $13.50 in counties with mid-sized cities such as Eugene, Bend, and Medford (a 46 percent increase), and $12.50 in sparsely populated areas (a 35 percent increase). The new minimum wages would be fully phased in by 2022.
Will this be enough to lift Oregon’s low-wage workers and their families out of poverty?
According to study after study the answer is no, these increases wouldn’t lift Oregon’s workers out of poverty even in 2015. By 2022 Oregon’s minimum wage will be all the more behind what it takes for workers pay the bills.
Would greater minimum wage increases than those contained in what the Senate passed have adverse effects on the economy? Not if you go by Oregon’s own history. In the late 80s – early 90s Oregon’s minimum wage increased 42 percent over only two years. In the 1970s the minimum wage was increased 80 percent over only four years. In each case these raises helped Oregon’s economy grow, and the unemployment rate went down in the years following the increases.
In addition to being too low and too slow, Senate Bill 1532 doesn’t even lift preemption, the law that prevents local governments from establishing an adequate minimum wage for the areas they govern. Without this, the ability of local communities to raise their wages according to workers’ local needs remains tied by a law made in the interests of wealthy corporations.
The Oregon Senate’s raises aren’t so much the result of determining what workers and the economy need. Rather they are based on a cold political calculation. On one hand the legislature does not want to confront their Big Business funders by demanding they pay a fair wage. On the other hand, they want to prevent a minimum wage ballot initiative from going to Oregon’s voters, which will cost their Big Business friends more. Senate Bill 1532 is the crumb the legislature are throwing Oregon’s workers to shake off the growth of a grassroots social movement for a statewide $15 minimum wage and real economic justice.
Both the AFL-CIO and SEIU 503 have passed resolutions supporting the $15 minimum wage ballot initiative, and to win at the ballot will demand serious resources from the unions to counter the flood of corporate money that will be spent in an effort to defeat it. More importantly, it will demand the unity of the unions and grassroots supporters to build a popular momentum that corporate dollars cannot stop.
In a state election year that will see a ballot that directly attacks the existence of public sector unions by outlawing closed shops, it is all the more important that unions act on behalf of all workers to win a $15 minimum wage. In taking this on the public at large will see that any attack on the unions is also an attack on their ability to win victories that benefit everyone except for those deep pocketed interests the legislatures are too beholden to.
In short, union leadership needs to commit to $15 with a serious and united campaign rather than accept Senate Bill 1532, not only for their members and all Oregon workers, but also for unions’ ability to defeat corporate attacks against them as well.