Closing the gap

Is Portland ready for a $15 per hour minimum wage?
By ZACK ANCHORS  |  July 23, 2014

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NATIONAL MOMENTUM The 15 NOW movement takes a grassroots, city-by-city approach

The Mayor wants to give low-wage workers a raise, but will it be a modest boost or a Seattle-style jump?

A few months after Portland’s mayor, Michael Brennan, announced last January that he wanted to raise the city’s minimum wage, Seattle passed a law to raise its citywide minimum wage to $15 per hour. That figure—$15—was big enough to captivate the minds of workers across the country and spread alarm among business owners. A $15 minimum wage is more than double the current federal minimum wage of $7.25, and it dwarfs the increase to $10.10 that President Obama and other Democratic leaders have supported at the federal and state levels.

What’s more, the organizations and activists behind Seattle’s fight for $15 have made it clear their campaign is part of a broader nationwide movement, and similar efforts to significantly spike the minimum wage at a local level are moving forward in several other big cities, including San Francisco, San Diego, and Chicago. If the movement racks up a few more victories, it’s conceivable that the Fight for 15 movement could accomplish what the Occupy movement never managed: mobilize workers to fight for a specific policy that would dramatically improve their economic status and reduce inequality.

Brennan didn’t have $15 in mind when he announced his intent to raise wages in Portland. And a proposed increase that high would face fierce opposition from businesses, especially Maine’s powerful restaurant and hospitality industries, which tend to pay the state’s lowest wages. But regardless of how high the mayor aims when he makes his proposal this fall, his call for increasing the minimum wage has opened the door to a broader local debate over what actually constitutes reasonable, fair wages, and how aggressively the city should push businesses to pay them. Part of that debate involves the thorny matter of whether the city should require tipped workers—plentiful in Portland—to be paid more than 50 percent of the minimum wage. Another question is whether the city should push to require a living wage, which would be based on how much a person in Portland actually needs to live outside of poverty.

And the increasingly steep cost of living in Portland underlies the whole issue of fair wages. As pricey condos pop up in every neighborhood and the local economy booms, the scarcity of affordable housing leaves many low-wage workers wondering if they can continue to call the city home. “The conversation about the minimum wage should really be about how to make Portland a city that working class people can afford,” says Drew Joy of the Southern Maine Worker’s Center. “What can we do to ensure that our restaurant workers can actually live here?”’

Seattle sets an example

What happened in Seattle came as a shock to much of the nation following the repeated failures of Congress and state legislatures to raise the minimum wage even moderately. Just a few months ago, the idea that a major city would raise the minimum wage to $15 seemed far-fetched. The improbable success of activists in Seattle makes it natural for Portland residents to wonder: Could it happen here?

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