PORTLAND, Ore. (PAI) – Oregon’s five biggest labor organizations have united with civil rights and community groups in a new formal coalition to back a bold agenda in this year’s session of the Oregon legislature. The coalition, known as Fair Shot for All will campaign for a big minimum wage increase, a paid sick leave law, “ban the box” and racial profiling laws, and legislation to create a publicly sponsored retirement plan for workers.
The package is an attempt to make the most of November 2014’s electoral gains: Democrats now have 18 of 30 seats in the state senate and 35 of 60 in the state house, so they’re in a position to do something about worsening economic inequality.
The groups in Fair Shot for All laid out their agenda publicly at a press conference Jan. 10, the same day University of Oregon released a report that shows a rapid increase in the number of low-wage jobs in Oregon. “The High Cost of Low Wages in Oregon” found one fourth of Oregon’s workforce – 412,000 workers – are in “low-wage” occupations with a median annual income of under $12 an hour. The report also found 197,000 working adults were receiving food stamps as of January 2014.
The Fair Shot for All coalition consists of Oregon AFL-CIO, SEIU, AFSCME, UFCW, Oregon Education Association, PCUN (the farmworkers’ union), the Urban League of Portland, Family Forward Oregon, the Center for Intercultural Organizing, CAUSA, Basic Rights Oregon, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, Oregon Action, and the Rural Organizing Project. Each member of the coalition is committing to helping pass all parts of a package of five proposals intended to counter growing inequality:
Minimum wage: The Oregon AFL-CIO is lead convener in efforts to get a big raise for low-wage Oregonians. Lawmakers may consider at least two proposals to increase Oregon’s minimum wage, which is currently $9.25 an hour.
One would raise it to $15 hourly over three years. Another would raise it to around $12. Either way, it would represent a big increase for more than a quarter of Oregon workers. Advocates also want to repeal a state law that prevents local jurisdictions from setting a minimum wage higher than the statewide minimum.
To show support for the campaign, the group 15 Now organized a rally at the State Capitol on Jan. 24, co-sponsored by the Oregon AFL-CIO and over a dozen unions. The rally was followed by a statewide gathering of minimum wage advocates.
Paid sick days: Family Forward Oregon will spearhead a campaign for a statewide paid sick days law. As introduced, the proposal would go farther than the ordinances passed in Portland and Eugene in that it would apply to all employers, and would allow workers to take up to seven paid sick days per year. Workers would accrue the paid sick leave at the rate of one hour for every 30 hours worked, and could use it to recover at home from a contagious illness, for a doctor’s appointment, or care for a sick child.
Union construction firms would be exempt from the mandate, because they employ workers through a hiring hall for typically short periods, and because their paid leave benefits are administered by a labor-management trust, not by the employers themselves.
Retirement savings: Employer-provided pensions are in steep decline, and around the country SEIU is taking the lead on a proposal for states to set up a kind of “public option” retirement plan. All employers that don’t offer a retirement plan would be required to give employees the option of contributing by payroll deduction to a state-sponsored retirement savings plan. To encourage saving, a default contribution rate would be set at maybe three or six percent, but employees could also set their own contribution rate or opt out entirely.
To minimize administrative costs and thus maximize returns, funds would be pooled. Investment decisions would be made by a state board along the lines of the Oregon Investment Board, with the goal of assuring workers a lifetime stream of income when they retire.
The plan would have lower fees than an IRA, and unlike a 401(k), wouldn’t be tied to a particular employer. The proposal has passed in several states thus far, and is backed by AARP and a variety of other groups. In Oregon, the Fair Shot for All coalition will campaign for the bill, with SEIU taking point.
Ban the box: Crime knows no class or color, but prisons and jails overwhelmingly house the poor and minorities. Upon release, they face a big barrier to going straight – the “Have you ever been convicted?” box on so many housing and employment applications.
The box is blind to circumstances, takes no account of reform, and because it makes it harder to get a job, it makes re-offending more likely. The Urban League of Portland will lead a campaign for a law to ban the box from initial applications. Employers and landlords could still do criminal background checks and discriminate based on convictions that are relevant to the job being applied for. But ex-offenders would at least get an opportunity to explain their record, and make a case for giving them a second chance.
Racial profiling: Data from Portland and Eugene show something disturbing: African-Americans and Latinos are as much as three times as likely as white people to be stopped and searched by police while driving or walking, but they’re no more likely to be found with contraband. The Center for Intercultural Organizing, an immigrant civil rights group, will head up a campaign for legislation to address that, first by defining racial profiling and beginning to collect more comprehensive data on it, and then by giving the state attorney general the ability to analyze the data.
Don McIntosh is Associate Editor, The Northwest Labor Press
Photo: Joshua Trujillo/AP