Oregon legislators just passed a bill that will slowly raise the minimum wage to $13.50 in counties like Jackson and Josephine, $12.50 in struggling counties like Coos and Curry, and $14.75 in Portland by the year 2022.
The last 24 months have been a battle about who Oregon’s economy works for: corporate CEOs and big business leaders, or working families who drive our economy and yet are increasingly falling into poverty.
This battle has been heated and especially important for two main reasons: need and opportunity.
Need: For one, Oregon has the second most productive workforce in the nation, which is part of why our state had an overall stronger and faster recovery after big banks crashed the national economy in 2008. But that recovery hasn’t benefited the workers fueling it. This has created tension, and rightfully so, between working families who hear about a recovery while their own families face increasing economic struggle. Meanwhile, big business and corporate lobbyists scramble to maintain a status quo that keeps working families down while profits (and the stock market) rise.
Opportunity: The second reason this fight was so important right now is that it seemed as if we had a rare moment of political opportunity to make a big change in the minimum wage because so many of our current state legislators were elected on promises of raising wages and addressing economic inequality in our state.
So what happened? In the wake of Oregon’s new minimum wage bill passing it’s clear that three things are true:
1.) We won a raise for Oregon’s working families through bold and persistent organizing. We didn’t give up when Democratic Senate leaders refused to vote on any bills to raise the wage in 2015. We refused to back down when we were told the state just couldn’t raise wages to address the needs of working families. We didn’t buy disingenuous arguments that it was somehow better for working families to not raise wages. We wrote letters to the editor, went to Salem, called legislators, and collected signatures. We won some progress.
2.) It’s not the raise working families need and have earned, and it leaves rural working families and migrant workers in rural communities behind. In Jackson County a living wage for a family of four in which both adults are working is $14.96 each. By 2022 when the Jackson County minimum wage reaches $13.50 that number will be even farther below living wage standards, and to make matters worse, there are currently 7 job seekers for every living wage job in Oregon. If you factor in the growing housing crisis, the high cost of childcare, and lack of transportation infrastructure in rural communities, it’s clear that we still have work to do.
3.) Even this compromise is under attack by corporate interests and their elected allies (like the Jackson County Commissioners.) Let’s be clear: Our opponents will Never.Stop.Demanding. Wages will never be low enough to appease the chamber of commerce or corporations or the many local and state officials who side with them and against us.
So yes, let’s thank lawmakers who fought to win the highest possible raise and stood up to intense pressure from corporations, the chamber of commerce, and others to water this bill down even more and leave even more people without the means to make it in Oregon.
And let’s also thank the people who helped our legislators make the right call.
The workers themselves, who collected signatures, shared stories, testified before the legislature, and dared to ask for more. I was there in Salem in 2015 and in January 2016 when the building was packed with people from across the state who had all come to the capitol to tell lawmakers why their families and communities needed a raise. The economic and logistic sacrifices these workers made to get the time off of work and get to Salem is an investment in the idea that Oregon can and must do better for all Oregonians. It is an investment we still have a responsibility to ensure full return on.
Bold new leaders and powerful movements who changed the conversationfrom whether we raise wages to how much we raise the wage. Oregon Action board member and community leader Kristi Wright took her own experience with economic insecurity and used her passion for change to build a strategic 15 Now statewide movement that demanded lawmakers stop ignoring the realities of poverty wages in our communities. This independent campaign advanced a bold narrative that effectively shifted the window of opportunity in Oregon and made initial proposals of raising wages to $10.10 or other lower alternatives seem as unreasonable as they actually are. It was the threat of very real ballot measure threats from $15 Now that led to the increases we did achieve.
Moving forward we have to re-commit to boldness, defend our wins, and then stake out the next big win for working families!