News briefs

Oregon Steel strikers to get $100 million in back pay

Almost seven years after it began, the dispute between Oregon Steel Mills and the United Steel Workers of America is finally at an end.

The two sides agreed in mid-September to a settlement that includes a back pay award estimated at nearly $100 million, to be paid out over a 10 year period.

The back pay will go to about 1,000 Steelworkers who were denied reinstatement after going out on strike for two months in 1997 against Rocky Mountain Steel Mills in Pueblo, Colo., which is owned by Portland-based Oregon Steel Mills.

The workers will receive an initial payment of $2,500 each. Oregon Steel Mills Inc., owner of Rocky Mountain Steel, will sell 4 million shares of its stock to create a trust fund for distribution to the strikers, and will distribute up to $35 million in profit sharing to those workers over the next 10 years.

As part of the settlement, the union is withdrawing the complaint it filed against the company before the National Labor Relations Board.

The company and the union, United Steel Workers of America, also agreed to a new five-year contract, which provides enhanced early retirement benefits for as many as 200 former strikers.


Minimum wage rate in Oregon to reach $7.25

Oregon’s minimum wage will go up 20 cents to $7.25 an hour starting Jan. 1, 2005.

In November 2002, Oregon voters enacted a labor-backed ballot initiative that increased the minimum wage and indexing it to inflation. Last month, Oregon Labor Commissioner Dan Gardner announced that the minimum wage will increase 20 cents an hour.

Gardner noted that over the long-term the minimum wage has not kept up with inflation. Even with this increase, the purchasing power of Oregon’s minimum wage remains below levels seen in the 1960s and 1970s, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy, a non-profit research group based in Silverton.

“Families working at or close to the minimum wage find it harder to make ends meet each year because prices go up. Indexing the minimum wage to inflation stops the erosion of its value,” said Chuck Sheketoff, executive director of the Oregon Center for Public Policy. “This is a family- friendly policy that has always enjoyed the strong support of Oregon voters.”

A full-time worker at the new minimum wage will earn $15,080, or $416 more a year than under the current minimum wage. This is still $590 less than the poverty level for a three-person family.

Many workers with incomes slightly above the minimum wage will also likely see increases as employers revise their wage schedules. “Increasing the minimum wage doesn’t just help those at the very bottom,” said Sheketoff. “It boosts others a baby step up the income ladder.”

Sheketoff called on Congress to raise the federal minimum wage, which has been at $5.15 an hour since 1997.

Assistant Oregon House Democratic Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, a sponsor of the ballot measure, said that minimum wage increases are good for the economy.

“People who work at or near the minimum wage don’t hoard their earnings,” she said. “Every cent goes right back into the local economy, to grocery stores, service stations and clothing stores. History proves that hikes in the minimum wage have always done exactly the opposite of what the opponents and naysayers threaten.”

Sheketoff noted that agricultural and restaurant interests repeatedly try to get the Legislature to overturn the voter-approved minimum wage.

“The Farm Bureau’s claim to the Legislature that the minimum wage increase is wreaking havoc on their industry is hogwash,” he said, pointing to recent data from the Oregon Department of Agriculture which shows that in 2003, a down year for Oregon’s economy, Oregon farmers had their best bottom line since ’98.

“On average, Oregon farmers and ranchers made more money in 2003 than any year since 1998, and Oregon’s net farm income for 2003 was up 27 percent from the previous year,” Sheketoff said. “That’s proof-positive that agriculture can grow profits with a minimum wage that keeps up with inflation.”

“The Oregon Restaurant Association’s complaints about the Oregon minimum wage are also slop,” Sheketoff continued, pointing to a recent report from the National Restaurant Association projecting that Oregon restaurant sales are expected to increase 4.8 percent next year. The National Restaurant Association also projects restaurant industry employment to grow 14.5 percent from 2004 to2014.

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