If the Legislature won't act, we're going to the ballot

By Shamus Cooke of Portland, Oregon. Shamus is the treasurer of Oregonians for 15.

While Salem politicians prepare for a seemingly uneventful legislative session, Oregon’s low-wage workers are getting crushed by the rising costs of rent, utilities, food, and other basic necessities.

For the over 700,000 people in Oregon employed in low-wage work, the economic insecurity is palpable. But this urgency is absent in Salem, where the once-booming enthusiasm to raise the minimum wage now appears only outside of the capitol building.

A telling example of legislators’ drooping energy is the number of legislative sponsors for a statewide $15 minimum wage. During last year’s session there were 16 co-sponsors of $15 legislation. This year there is zero. Legislators still have time to mirror the reality felt by Oregon’s low-wage workers; but that time is shrinking, since the ‘short session’ begins in February and lasts only five weeks.

We shouldn’t forget Oregon's Democrats won a decisive election victory with a campaign promise of raising the minimum wage. This post election momentum was squandered during the last session, which didn’t come close to passing a bill.

Although a $15 minimum wage has no champion, House Speaker Tina Kotek says that she supports $13.50. Soon after she announced this some labor unions followed her, despite the entire Oregon labor movement having endorsed $15.

But following Kotek’s legislation is likely to lead to a dead end, since $13.50 is more style than substance. Aside from a few public comments, Kotek hasn’t been a champion for $13.50, and most of her Democrat colleagues won’t mention a specific number they support. Instead they blandly state: “I support raising the minimum wage”, a comment shallow enough to mean either $13.50 or $9.35.

In reality Kotek’s ‘bold’ $13.50 will likely amount to little more than a bargaining chip, easily tossed aside towards an even worse compromise. It's very possible that Oregon’s Democrats may again fail to deliver any raise, since corporate lobbyists get more time with legislators than low-wage workers.

Though popularity for $15 has faded from the halls of the Capitol, it remains an energetic movement across Oregon, where tens of thousands of workers across the state are winning or demanding $15.

In several polls, a majority of Oregonians have voiced support for $15, while over 100 labor and community groups from across the state have endorsed a $15 minimum wage. Thousands of people across the state have rallied, volunteered, or attended events in support of $15.

This is why any inaction in Salem will not end the campaign for $15. The coalition ‘Oregonians for $15’ has filed a ballot initiative that will allow voters to decide for themselves in November if Oregon’s legislators again fail to deliver on their campaign promises.

The $15 ballot initiative is financially possible largely due to the implacable support of several Oregon unions that have stayed strong for $15, most notably the AFL-CIO’s largest union, the Oregon School Employees Association (OSEA).

This ongoing union support has allowed Oregonians for 15 to hire a dedicated and knowledgeable staff of local organizers to gather signatures, several of which are already on the streets to add to the 15,000 signatures volunteers have already collected in only two months. 88,000 signatures are needed by July 1, 2016.

Ian Forsyth, Canvassing Director for Oregonians for 15, is confident that between volunteers and paid staff the campaign will easily collect the needed amount of signatures:

“There’s real incentive for people to sign this petition. Over 70% of Portland voters already support the initiative, and for the others who’re still undecided it doesn’t take much to explain to them why this is good economics for everyone involved.”

Even with the low expectations in Salem supporters of the $15 minimum wage will continue to be the loudest and most mobilized voice on the issue, in the streets and in the Capitol building. The Capitol will be packed with $15 supporters on January 14th, when legislators hold a public hearing about the minimum wage. We will tell legislators that this is their last chance: we demand “15 Now!”, or else we're going to the ballot.

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