$15 or Bust in Oregon

by Nicholas Caleb

Oregon’s minimum wage debate has been mired in the failure of our state and local governments to take responsibility for lifting working Oregonians out of poverty. Given this context, many were surprised to hear about Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek’s proposal for a $13/hr minimum wage

State Democrats seemed stumped on how to follow through with their campaign promises to raise the minimum wage, caught between Senate President Peter Courtney’s staunch opposition on the one hand, and on the other a statewide movement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour; an effort supported by over a 100 labor and community groups. The demand has always been $15, but Salem’s failure to pass Kotek’s $13/hr proposal was also a betrayal of the working poor, a constituency the Democratic Party insists that it will protect in exchange for their votes. And even if Oregon Democrats had rallied to pass Kotek’s bill, it still wouldn’t be enough to lift working Oregonians out of poverty. Those who think that $15 is “too high” seem oddly distanced from the economic reality faced by working people in Oregon, where soaring rent and stagnant wages have produced a perfect storm of economic insecurity. This year, the nonpartisan group Alliance for a Just Society calculated that working people in Oregon needed a wage of at least $15.96/hr in order to meet basic needs. 

According to Elizabeth Warren, if the minimum wage would have risen at the same rate as worker productivity since 1960, it would be $22/hr right now. A $15 minimum wage would give 600,000 Oregonians a raise, money they would put back into the economy that would generate economic activity, while also saving Oregon taxpayers $1.7 billion in subsidizing low-wage employers, since taxpayers compensate for these low wages by paying for food stamps and other benefits. $15/hr is actually a conservative ask given this context. And yet, we see no real urgency from our state legislators to do what is actually needed to help working families.One positive aspect of Kotek’s failed proposal is that it would life the state “preemption” law that currently prevents municipalities in Oregon from raising their minimum wage above the state level. Though all of Oregon needs a $15 minimum wage, cities like Portland need more than $15 to pay for the basic necessities. An ever-increasing number of Portland’s residents are in crisis and are receiving little help from state and local governments.In the short term, given the low likelihood that state Democrats will embrace a $15/hr minimum wage, legislators in Salem should at least remove the state preemption law. At the same time, labor and community groups should give their full support to the $15/hr ballot initiative currently gathering signatures that takes the minimum wage question directly to the voters.
Nicholas Caleb is a professor at Concordia University in Portland, OR, a community activist, and a former Portland City Council candidate. 

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