By ANN MONTAGUE
— PORTLAND, Ore. — On June 11 the activists from the recently formed “$15 Now PDX” group entered the city council meeting. They had been rallying outside Portland City Hall prior to the 9:30 a.m. meeting, and when an official saw them enter the building he told them they would have to sit upstairs. But he quickly backed off as he was told there was clearly room on the main floor, and they filed in with their signs.
The activists were there to give testimony and to present the council with 1000 names of Portland residents who wanted them to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour. The current minimum wage in Oregon is $9.10.
The activism in Portland started when Nick Caleb decided to run against a long-time incumbent city council member, Dan Saltzman. Caleb is a professor at Concordia College and an environmental activist who also picked up the banner of $15 minimum wage. While he lost the election, his activist campaign left behind energized workers to continue the fight for $15. During his campaign they started weekly rallies called “Living Wage Wednesdays” outside City Hall.
On June 11, Justin Norton Kersten, co-founder of $15 Now in Portland, presented the council with 1000 signatures of people who want them to raise the minimum wage. In his testimony he noted the escalating cost of living in Portland. Rent and groceries up 4.5% and 3.5% respectively last year. This followed rent hikes of 4.9% in 2012.
He cited the Oregon Center for Public Policy report that says a two-parent, one-child family in Portland needs to earn $63,978 per year to have a basic level of economic security. If both parents work full-time at minimum-wage jobs without taking any time off, they will still be $26,000 shy of that basic level. However, as Norton-Kertson told the council, with a $15 minimum wage, that family will earn close to $63,000, bringing them right up to the cusp of economic security.
Oregon’s minimum-wage law preempts local governments, with some exceptions, from creating their own minimum wages. Among those exceptions are jobs in and through city government. Norton-Kertson called on the council to “raise the minimum wage for all city workers to $15 per hour” and “require that all contractors working with the city pay their employees a $15 minimum wage.”
While none of the City Council members would commit to this proposal they all did agree that they are against the preemption law. Portland Mayor Charlie Hales stated, “We don’t like preemptions in general, and we don’t like this one either.” They agreed to lobby the state to get rid of preemption law, but made no commitment to raise city workers’ pay.
The $15 Now group is working to broaden their coalition as they continue to get names of supporters. They have been active in solidarity work with the Laborer’s International Union (LiUNA) local 483, which represents city workers. The workers at the Portland Zoo are working to raise the minimum wage in Portland, and they have put it on the bargaining table for workers at the zoo. They recently had a solidarity action at the zoo called “Zooladarity.” Advocates of a $15 minimum wage helped give out thousands of stickers, which were worn by z00 staff and patrons.
In addition, the SEIU 503 Lavender Caucus, who had created a leaflet about why $15 minimum wage is an LGBT issue, invited $15 Now to join and march in the Pride At Work contingent. Their presence energized the march, and they got some new members. They know that they need to build a broad coalition to win this fight, and they seem to be up to the task.
Photo: Denis C. Theriault / Portland Mercury