House Speaker Kotek is pushing a $13 minimum wage for Oregon. Here’s why $15 is still the right number for working families in poverty.
By Kristi Wright & Denise Brooks
In his June 15 article “Oregon House speaker unveils $13 minimum wage proposal,” Jonathan J. Cooper reports on the efforts of Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to “keep the issue in lawmakers’ minds.” He got a few things wrong about the statewide ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage, and implied that the campaign is mainly backed by liberals and labor groups in Portland. As co-founders of 15 Now Southern Oregon and leaders in 15 Now Oregon, the reach of which extends far beyond Portland, we assure you that there is much more to the story.
Make no mistake: Kotek’s proposal would never have happened without the work of social movements in Oregon and throughout the nation. Since 2012, amid a widening chasm between the one percent and the rest of us, the $15 minimum wage issue has captured the public imagination. What seemed like an impossible demand just a few years ago is now law in Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, with other cities poised to follow. Even the National Democratic Party has shifted its rhetoric from supporting $9 to $10.10 to $12. As more and more families struggle to get by, it’s clear that lawmakers are feeling pressure to raise the wage.
In Oregon, we are pioneers. Our ballot measure for a $15 minimum wage by 2019 is the first of its kind. Cooper said the measure was filed by 15 Now PDX, but it was actually filed by 15 Now Oregon, which has organizing groups in Medford, Portland, Eugene, and La Grande, together with the Latino labor union PCUN and the Rural Organizing Project. Southern Oregon organizer Kristi Wright foretold the filing in her April 5 guest opinion titled “If Courtney kils bill, $15 minimum wage will go to the ballot.” Committed to leaving no community behind, 15 Now Oregon is collecting signatures in all 36 counties. This is truly a statewide campaign.
In Southern Oregon, we have seen firsthand that among voters, this is not a partisan issue. There are many good reasons for conservative Republicans to support a $15 minimum wage. Whereas poverty wages coerce working families into relying on government programs like food stamps and welfare — aid that costs Oregon taxpayers more than $1.7 billion each year — a living wage would allow them the dignity of economic security and self-sufficiency. Who would we rather pay the workers: state taxpayers, or the businesses that profit from their labor?
What about people already making more than $15? How is raising the minimum wage fair to them? We hear this question a lot. It is admirable that people have worked hard to get where they are. But in the wake of 35 years of economic policies that have kept most wages for most workers stagnant, even as the cost of living continues to rise, hard work is no longer enough to get ahead. A $15 minimum wage would give workers in the trades more leverage to fight back and demand better. When workers are divided in this struggle, it is the one percent who win.
Despite the variety of minimum wage proposals on the table this session, $15 is the only number the public has wanted to talk about. That’s because in a state where business is better than ever, but nearly half of new jobs pay poverty wages, that symbol of economic security and self-sufficiency is powerful. On average across Oregon, $15 an hour is what working families need to pay for food, housing, transportation, and other basic needs. No one deserves to live in poverty, and it’s time for hardworking Oregonians to collect the living wage they have earned.
We must decide what the future of Oregon will be like. Will we continue to condone a system in which 350,000 children have at least one parent bringing home poverty wages, and where opportunities to get ahead are disappearing? Or will we make sure that working Oregonians, who all play vital roles in the day-to-day functioning of our communities, have the dignity of a living wage? Senate Democrats will likely block Kotek’s proposal, but we know where the people stand. Oregon is ready for $15, and with the ballot measure, there is no good reason to settle for less.
Kristi Wright of Ashland is statewide organizing director for 15 Now Oregon. Denise Brooks of Medford is president of the National Association of Letter Carriers Branch 1433.