by Justin Norton-Kertson
On Monday evening at the Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem, community groups, labor unions, low-wage workers, and activists from throughout the state flooded the committee hearing room and spilled into overflow rooms to express strong support for a bill that would raise Oregon’s minimum wage to $15 an hour over three years.
Seattle and San Francisco both approved a minimum wage of $15 last year, and Oregon would be the first state to follow suit. At a press conference before the hearing, 15 Now Oregon representatives announced plans to file for a ballot measure this week, and to begin collecting signatures to qualify for the 2016 election.
Supporters of a $15 minimum wage urged legislators to initiate a floor vote on SB 610, and expressed concern that big business lobbyists were working behind the scenes to kill the bill. Dozens wore red T-shirts while hundreds more wore green buttons, all emblazoned with the 15 Now Oregon logo.
The hearing involved a joint session of the House Business and Labor Committee and the Senate Workforce Committee, where all the minimum wage bills were addressed. For hours, people testified about the need for a minimum wage high enough to get hardworking Oregonians out of poverty and off public assistance.
“I have nothing but empathy for the majority of low-wage workers as I make significantly more at $13 an hour, and live with the food insecurity and financial insecurity of poverty,” said Sarah Kowaleski, who is a part-time worker for the City of Portland at the Multnomah County Arts Center. “I am a city employee, a public servant. $15 an hour would make my economic life and work as a public servant sustainable.”
Beforehand in the rotunda, a volunteer dressed as Ronald McDonald taunted supporters about paying lobbyists to kill the bill for a $15 minimum wage. Representatives from 15 Now Oregon used the opportunity to announce plans to file for a ballot measure on Friday, and called on
specific legislators to take action. “Tina Kotek, Richard Devlin, Peter Courtney, and Kate Brown, will you stand with Oregon’s working families on this issue, or will you stand with McDonalds and other big businesses that pad their profits by paying poverty wages?” said Statewide Organizing Director Kristi Wright, as the crowd cheered while supporters unfurled a 15 Now banner.
Recent research has shown that a $15 minimum wage would will benefit the economy in general, and small businesses in particular. The Oregon Center for Public Policy found that a $15 minimum wage would create a pathway for working families to be more self-sufficient. This study directly refutes the “benefits cliff” argument raised by opponents of a higher minimum wage, who claim that the loss of public benefits for some workers would cancel out wage gains. In addition, OCPP found that a minimum wage increase would bolster small businesses, giving customers an additional $3 billion to spend, while also increasing worker productivity. The study states that “[a] better-paid worker is a better customer for small businesses.”
Stephen Michael of the Main Street Alliance of Oregon, a network of over 2,500 small business owners, agreed. “Too many Oregonians making up a sizable share of the full-time workforce remain dependent on public assistance programs, while corporate CEOs take home record profits,” he said. “Small business owners understand that a vibrant local economy is sustained by a virtuous cycle in which workers also play an important role as consumers.” The Main Street Alliance of Oregon has endorsed a $15 minimum wage.
15 Now Oregon is an independent community organization with active volunteers in Portland, Salem, Medford, Eugene, and elsewhere throughout the state. More than 80 labor unions, community groups, and small businesses in Oregon have endorsed a $15 minimum wage. To find out more, visit 15noworegon.org.