Low-wage workers to get pay raise if labor-backed measure wins
By DON McINTOSH, Associate Editor
In the next few weeks Oregon voters have a chance to give the state's low-wage workers a raise - and protect that raise from being eroded by inflation.
Ballots were mailed out Oct. 18 and are due Nov. 5; if Ballot Measure 25 passes, Oregon's minimum wage would increase to $6.90 an hour Jan. 1, 2003, and would increase every year thereafter based on the consumer price index.
Recent polls show the public supports the measure by nearly two-to-one. Opponents - including the Oregon Restaurant Association - have placed paid statements in the Voter's Pamphlet, but had raised very little money as of Sept. 18, the period covered by the most recent contribution and expenditure reports.
And, reports Phil Donovan, campaign manager for the Minimum Wage Coalition, opponents have purchased no television ads. That leaves minimum wage campaigners like State Representative Diane Rosenbaum sighing with relief.
"We expected more opposition than we're finding," said Rosenbaum, a member of Communications Workers Local 7901. "We figure they've seen how popular it is and don't want to spend the kind of money that would be required to defeat it."
For years, the biggest opponents of minimum wage increases have been low-wage employers - most notably the restaurant industry and agribusiness. Every time a minimum wage increase is considered, low-wage employers argue it will cause price increases and layoffs, hurting consumers and workers.
Bill Perry of the Oregon Restaurant Association asserts that a recession is the worst time to raise the minimum wage. He predicts 30,000 jobs will be lost if the measure passes.
"Those predictions have been made every time we consider raising the minimum wage," said Rosenbaum, "and they've never come true in the past."
Supporters argue the opposite: "Now is exactly when you need to put more money into low-wage workers' hands," said Oregon AFL-CIO Political Director Steve Lanning. "If you give a minimum wage increase, every penny of that is going to go right back into the local economy."
"When they buy groceries or shoes for their kids, that money will go back to the local businesses where they live," adds Rosenbaum. "It's really the best thing we could do to stimulate the economy."
According to economist Jeff Thompson of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, some economists think minimum wage increases cause job losses, but that the numbers are very marginal, measurable only among teenage workers.
"Our research has shown that if there is job loss, it's so small that you can't find the evidence of it. But you CAN see the effect of the wage increases."
And Thompson discounts the notion that high unemployment in Oregon and Washington are linked to high minimum wage: "To the extent that Oregon now has high unemployment, it's not from low-wage sectors. If you look at the sector most impacted by a minimum wage increase, the restaurant industry, they're actually doing pretty well. That's one of the sectors that's adding jobs."
Oregon's minimum wage has been $6.50 since 1999; in terms of buying power, that's lower than it was in 1976. "No one who's working full time should end up living in poverty," says Donovan. "Try living on $1,000 a month. It's tough."
Over 100,000 workers who currently earn Oregon's minimum wage will get a raise if Measure 25 passes. In all likelihood, so would as many as 100,000 more workers who earn slightly over the minimum. The last round of minimum wage increases boosted wages for as many as 16 percent of Oregon workers, according to a study Thompson produced in 2001. That study also found that 60 percent of minimum wage earners are women, 25 percent are single mothers, and 73 percent are 20 or older.
The federal minimum wage is $5.15 an hour. California's is $6.75 and Washington's is $6.90.
In 1998, Washington voters passed the first law mandating annual cost-of-living increases in the minimum wage. This year the Alaska Legislature voted to do the same. Oregon would be the third state.
"We think this is just a much more rational way to do it," Rosenbaum said. "It will make it much more stable and predictable."
Union support was crucial to the initiative campaign at every stage.
Rosenbaum, a member of Communications Workers of America, along with Labor Commissioner-elect Dan Gardner (vice president of Electrical Workers Local 48) and Gene Pronovost, president of United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) Local 555, were chief petitioners of the campaign. More than a dozen labor organizations have joined the Minimum Wage Coalition, including AFSCME Council 75, which recruited volunteer petitioners state-wide, UFCW, which contributed financially, and American Federation of Teachers-Oregon.
Lanning and Rosenbaum also say the measure might not have made it without Chip Shields, whose organization Better People works to reform ex-cons and place them in living-wage jobs. Shields contributed $70,000 to the campaign. Much of it came at an early stage, when the Oregon AFL-CIO was weighing priorities against the possibility of having to fight anti-union measures then being circulated by Bill Sizemore of Oregon Taxpayers United.
Campaign organizers are appealing to union members to get involved; if Measure 25 passes by a wide margin, it may encourage imitation in other states. For more information, call 503-963-1863 or visit www.OregonMinimumWage.com.
© Oregon Labor Press Publishing Co. Inc.