By ANN MONTAGUE
SALEM, Ore.—Hundreds of Oregonians came to Salem on Jan. 24 to rally and march and demand a statewide $15 minimum wage. Organized by labor and community groups, the event not only showcased how the movement has expanded outside of Portland to the rest of the state but also the growing passion to end poverty wages. Buses came from Portland and vans arrived from southern Oregon.
While most unions in Oregon endorsed the march, the Oregon School Employee Association (OSEA) and Pineros y Campesinos Unidos Del Noroeste (PCUN) turned out the most rank and file. The WalMart strikers from Klamath Falls who are currently being harassed on the job also spoke at the rally.
The first speaker was Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, and he clearly was inspired by the crowd to give an uncharacteristic red-meat speech. He called out the labor commissioner for promoting the bill for $12 and not $15 and railed on the Democratic governor and his leader of the House and Senate, all of whom have opposed raising the minimum wage.
But the rally was really to support low-wage workers like the food service worker at the Portland Zoo, the school bus driver, and the home care worker who spoke to the rally about the dignity of her work and ended by saying, “$13 is not a living wage, $14 is not a living wage, $15 comes close, but we are worth more.”
After the rally, people took to the streets for a short march. About 150 marchers stayed for a meeting, with breakouts by geographic region to plan next steps in their area.
At the same time, more studies are being released and discussed in the press about the effects that a $15 minimum wage would have on Oregon communities. The University of Oregon Labor Education And Research Center just released its 2014 Oregon Workforce Report, entitled, “The High Cost Of Low Wages In Oregon.” It states that over 400,000 Oregonians are employed in low-wage work.
The part of the report that is getting the most media exposure reveals that the state pays $1.75 billion a year in safety net assistance to these low-wage workers and their families, in effect subsidizing employers. Also, Lake Research Partners conducted a poll of likely Oregon voters and found that 54% support increasing the current minimum wage of $9.25 an hour to $15 an hour and adjusting for inflation annually.
The major argument that the governor and other Democrats use to oppose raising the minimum wage to $15 is what they call the “Benefit Cliff.” They claim the higher wage will mean workers will lose public benefits, and therefore, raising wages would only hurt workers.
The head of the Oregon Center For Public Policy (OCPP) came out with a blistering attack on this policy, pointing out that a $15 increase would mean real gains for workers. “Over half a million workers will see bigger paychecks—extra money that will help their families get ahead.” He also tore apart the cry that workers would lose child-care subsidies, stating that the program is so under-funded now that hardly any workers receive the benefit. He called for raising the minimum wage to $15 and increasing funding to the child-care assistance program.
The goals of the statewide action were to bring together 15 Now chapters to plan the next steps of the campaign, raise the visibility of the movement , and bring in new layers of activists. Soon after the rally, 15 Now received the endorsements of the United Steelworkers of Oregon and USW local 8378, as well as the Lane County Central Labor Council (Eugene/Springfield) and the University of Oregon Student Labor Action Project (SLAP).
In Portland, 15 Now was invited to do a workshop for the upcoming Community Summit of several hundred community activists and Neighborhood Association members.