Low wages have a history
Labor historian Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Centre (LERC) at the University of Oregon, introduced our second panel at the March 14, 2014 PNLHA mini-conference in Astoria, Oregon. This one was on the state’s low-wage economy and the movement for a $15 minimum wage.
Our first panelist was Daniel Morris, research director for Our Oregon. Citing a LERC report, Daniel described an “increasing divide between a few high-wage workers at the upper end and many more people who are struggling for low wages in these low-wage jobs. And those are for the most part the jobs that are available.”
He astonished the conference by stating that more than a million Oregonians used food stamps and yet “Oregon’s economy is growing about three times faster than the U.S. economy.” But the growth “is not being shared with the workers.” Corporations “are not paying taxes on all these profits, [so] basically we’re losing out on billions of dollars in both federal and state taxes.” He proposed that the state raise corporate taxes “to reinvest in schools, and transportation, and all the stuff that we need to help make our economy grow.”
Recently laid off from his food industry job at a local bakery, Portland labor activist Ryan Wisnor encourage workers to build a “culture of solidarity” to improve an industry that is notorious for paying low wages and stifling unionizing attempts.
He wants to organize young workers because “their first experience on the job, and probably a lot of ours, really is instrumental in knowing how they’ll respond to conditions in the future.” People whose first job was a union job or that came from a union family “had that culture of solidarity within them early. That allowed them to see when working conditions at their next job were poor or abusive or discriminatory. It gave them an idea and the skills for how to respond.”
Fast food workers have started to make some progress in demanding a $15 an hour wage, Ryan said. “I think we have to be supportive of legislation but not without shop floor organization. I think the best way for that solidarity culture and the laws to be enforced for workplace rights is through direct enforcement.”
Oregon School Employees Association staff member Mimi Khalili followed Ryan with some intimate details from her early life of poverty as well as her thoughts on what can be done to beat the low-wage problem.
“We know that a $15 minimum wage would benefit over 500,000 Oregonians and that an increase to $15 is not an inappropriate increase,” she said. “The $15 minimum wage bill means an increase of 43 per cent over two years, so its only 1 per cent higher than what was passed in 1989.
“When people who have never lived in poverty start to argue against the concept of a $15 minimum wage, I feel a need to educate them because opinions are shaped by experience. If you haven’t lived it, you don’t really know it. For purposes of scale, I was able to get over my post-traumatic stress disorder after living as a civilian in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war easier than I was able to shake the effects of growing up impoverished in the U.S.”
Watch for the first edition of “PNLHA Labor History Online,” a podcast that provides more details on mini-conference discussions.