The Fight for $15 in Eugene Blurs Traditional Political Divides

by Justin Norton-Kertson

Oregon cities and counties can’t raise the minimum wage themselves for all workers within their boundaries, but that hasn’t stopped local activists and low-wage workers from fighting for $15 at the local level, and it hasn’t stopped local governments from responding to pressure by raising the minimum wage to $15 for their own employees.

So far all of the local campaigns and victories for $15 for municipal workers in Oregon have been in the Portland metro area. In late 2014 all Multnomah County employees won a $15 minimum wage. In February 2015 Portland City Council passed a resolution guaranteeing a $15 minimum for all full-time city workers and for contract workers like security guards and janitors who work on city property. More recently, in October the City of Milwaukie passed an ordinance ensuring that no city worker’s wages—including seasonal, part-time workers, and interns—would fall below $15 per hour.

Now for the first time, the Fight for $15 for municipal employees is branching out beyond the Portland metro area and into Eugene. Groups like 15 Now Eugene, Eugene-Springfield Solidarity Network, and a coalition of others are advocating for a $15 minimum wage for all city workers and contract workers. At the request of Councilwoman Claire Syrett, the Eugene City Council is now slated to discuss the issue this month.

15 Now Eugene held a rally with a coalition of other organizations in October to kick off their campaign for $15 for city workers and contract workers.
15 Now Eugene held a rally with a coalition of other organizations in October to kick off their campaign for $15 for city workers and contract workers. Photo by Lonnie Douglas.

The struggle for $15 for municipal workers in Eugene is particularly significant because it illustrates how as this movement continues to spread from the city and urban landscape into more rural areas, it blurs traditional political and ideological party lines that have kept working people in Oregon divided for far too long. These are divisions that have deep roots here in Oregon, and certainly no less so in other states throughout the country.

Normally one would expect with a fair amount of certainty to see people on the left line up in favor of, and people on the right line up against a proposed worker rights issue (or “business regulation”) like a minimum wage increase. However, as the struggle in Eugene is showing raising the minimum wage and the Fight for $15 is an issue that has the potential to break through such superficial barriers and unite working people behind a banner of common class interest. All low-wage workers struggle to feed their families and make ends meet. All low-wage workers need a raise. This basic struggle and need exists in the lives of low-wage workers, indeed in lives of all working people regardless of whether any individual one of us considers ourselves liberal or conservative, Republican, Democrat, socialist, or independent.

Photo by Lonnie Douglas
Photo by Lonnie Douglas

The potential that the Fight for $15 has to break through that traditional political divide and unite working people in Oregon was displayed in a December 6 opinion piece published by the Eugene Register Guard. “I am not a liberal! I’m a recently retired veteran, a Christian, and a conservative — which means that I’m itching to fight for the rights and dignity of those who can’t fight for themselves” said Lonnie Douglas of the Eugene-Springfield Solidarity Network, talking about why he is part of the Fight for $15 and challenging the notion that only liberals care about fair wages for working people. The fact that raising the minimum wage is an issue that can reach across the liberal-conservative divide was also highlighted nationally during the November 2014 election when voters in 4 Republican-dominated states overwhelming passed minimum wage increases at the ballot by margins so huge that there is no doubt conservatives were voting in very large numbers to increase the minimum wage.

But the struggle in Eugene highlights how the Fight for $15 breaks through a divide that goes much deeper here in Oregon than the overly simplistic and often un-useful liberal-conservative dichotomy. I’m talking of course about the urban-rural divide. This is a political, economic, and cultural barrier in Oregon that exists even among the left itself, among liberal and progressive causes, organizations, and coalitions. In terms of the minimum wage issue, this divide has crept into the left in the form of the argument (put forward by an increasing number of progressive organizations and leading minimum wage advocates in Oregon, but rarely if ever by low-wage workers themselves) that while Portland and the metro area need $15, working people and their families in the rest of the state can get by on less.

This idea that rural Oregon doesn’t need a $15 minimum wage is not supported by reputable living wages studies. Worse, it is an idea that exploits the deep-rooted political divide between Portland and the rest of the state, once again pitting working people against each other along urban-rural lines. If we are going to build a real worker’s movement here in Oregon that can challenge and defeat the onslaught of anti-worker initiatives being pushed by ALEC and the Koch Brothers—a movement that can go on the offensive and create real economic change, strengthen unions, provide healthcare and free college tuition for all, reduce income inequality—then we need to challenge and upend these divisions and unite behind the fight for a statewide $15 minimum wage that truly leaves no one behind.

Photo by Lonnie Douglas
Photo by Lonnie Douglas

From the beginning of the most recent push for a statewide minimum wage increase here in Oregon, back in the summer of 2014, 15 Now Oregon has made the case that $15 per hour is the baseline minimum needed anywhere in our state to be able to afford the basic necessities. This case is backed up by Oregon cost of living studies conducted by reputable organizations and research universities such as Alliance for a Just Society, the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the University of Washington, and MIT. But while many have unfortunately backed off the statewide demand for $15, deciding that working people outside of Portland can settle for less, the struggle for $15 for city workers and contractor workers in Eugene highlights the fact that working people in Oregon’s smaller cities, towns, and more rural areas outside of Portland metro need $15 too. They understand the importance of $15 for them and their families. They understand that anything less than $15 isn’t enough to get by where they live. So $15 is what they are fighting for and demanding.

As our state legislators prepare to debate bills that would set a statewide minimum wage at only $13.50, or that would set regional minimum wages that leave those outside Portland metro behind, they would be wise to take stock of the lessons that can be learned from what is happening right now in Eugene. The Fight for $15 breaks through the traditional barriers that keep working people in Oregon divided. $15 in Oregon is an inevitability. If we don’t win at the legislature, then we will win at ballot.

No one who works should live in poverty, and anything less than $15 isn’t enough. This is just as true in Eugene, Medford, Bend, Lincoln City, Coos Bay, Salem or Pendleton as it is in Portland, Beaverton, or Gresham. Oregon needs a statewide $15 minimum wage, and we need it now.

Now it’s time for you to have your voice heard. Join us on January 14th at the state capitol building in Salem to demand a statewide $15 minimum wage from our legislators. There will be a rally at 3pm on the steps of the capitol building, followed by a public legislative hearing that evening on raising the state’s minimum wage. Come out. Sing up to testify at the hearing. Demand $15 Now for all of Oregon!

Will you fight for $15?

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