Portland City Council okays new living wage

PORTLAND, OR -- "It's a great victory for Portland's low-wage workers," declared Yvonne Martinez, co-chair of Jobs with Justice. "Now let's move on to make all of Portland a fair wages city."

On April 15, Portland's City Council unanimously passed an ordinance amending the city's "Fair Wage Policy," guaranteeing that employers who contract with the city pay employees $7.50 per hour this year and $8 the next, plus health benefits for janitors, security guards and parking attendants. Temporary clericals will be added in a separate ordinance. Currently, companies that contract with the city are obligated to pay these workers $7 per hour with no health benefit guarantee.

Commissioner Jim Frances-coni introduced the ordinance at the urging of the Living Wage Campaign, a coalition of 35 labor, community and religious groups. Members of the Living Wage Campaign testified in favor of the amended Fair Wage Policy. But they also called on the City Council to go further -- to include a cost-of-living adjustment, paid days off, union-friendly language, and expansion of the ordinance to include all businesses getting substantial economic assistance from the city.

Jean Eilers, Oregon state director for the national AFL-CIO, told commissioners the ordinance needed union-friendly language that would confirm that "workers have a say in establishing their living standards."

Deputy City Attorney Madeline Wessel said that complex state and federal mandates have created confusion about permissible, union-friendly language, possible requirements for contractors' worker health care packages, and issues pertaining to temporary employees from agencies.

Commissioner Francesconi declared support for unionization, saying "the best way to raise wages is to unionize." He promised to work with advocacy groups to craft legally defensible union-friendly language in the ordinance. The campaign wants language that gives union companies a better chance to get contracts and workers at non-union companies a better chance at organizing.

Francesconi also said he would support a cost-of-living adjustment, paid days off and possible expansion of the ordinance to include other businesses with city subsidies. The campaign pledged to work with the city to craft such improvements. Many other cities, such as Boston, Baltimore, Los Angeles, Milwaukee, Minneapolis and Oakland, have living wage ordinances which include these provisions.

Francesconi gave Jobs with Justice a role in monitoring the ordinance. "We accept Jim's offer to help enforce and improve the ordinance. We'd like to see a lot more workers get a living wage," said Nancy Haque of Jobs with Justice.

The council's Fair Wage Policy declares that city economic development policy calls for jobs that lead to economic self-sufficiency for Portland residents; that strict low-bidder contracting policy for service contracts is conducive to low salaries; that fair wages and benefits reduce turnover, raise employee morale and result in more productivity; that contract workers and their families should not be kept in poverty-level conditions, and that the city "wishes to set an example on city service contracts that establishing a more humane and realistic minimum wage supports the future of the city as a livable place for all citizens, from all walks of life."

The Living Wage Coalition said its next step will be to get the Multnomah County Commission to pass a living wage ordinance.

(Editor's Note: Correspondent Neil Heilpern contributed to this article.)


May 1, 1998 issue

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