SEIU responds to statewide minimum wage increase

Minimum wage has been a hot-button topic for a while now. Bernie Sanders brings it up weekly on the presidential trail and the discussion has labored on in statehouses around the country, even here in Oregon. Currently, there are four statewide initiatives to raise the minimum wage, not including a plan announced by Governor Kate Brown earlier this year. The Oregon Senate responded by passing Senate Bill 1532 on Feb. 11, which passed in the House a week after.

The bill would steadily increase the state minimum wage to $13.50 over the next six years, through an established tiered system based on counties’ demographics. Within Portland’s urban growth boundary, the minimum wage would be $14.75. In more rural counties, the wage would be $12.50, in an effort to ease some of the financial strain on small businesses.

At the University of Oregon, service workers have negotiated via the Service Employees International Union for years to increase the contracted wage for university jobs. SEIU represents workers at all seven of the public universities in the state.

Theodora Thompson, president of the local chapter of the SEIU, is an admissions specialist at the UO. She came to Oregon from Singapore 20 years ago, leaving behind a universal healthcare system and broader labor rights, to pursue her education at the UO. Since graduating and becoming a university employee, she has been active with the union’s efforts to increase the minimum wage.

“People have to have a wage that allows them to have dignity in their work and self-sufficiency with their lives,” Thompson said.

According to a study by North Star Civic Foundation based on the 2014 Consumer Price Index, the current $9.25 minimum wage leaves almost half of working families that have one or more kids unable to meet living expenses – well over half for single parents.

Johnny Earl, a UO custodial coordinator and former vice president of the UO SEIU, was chief negotiator during the latest contract negotiations with the UO. Cost of living expenses are something that have been a part of that conversation for a while.

“We’ve been talking for a long time about how this issue wasn’t going away,” Earl said. “It’s not acceptable for people working for the government to have to rely on government services just to make ends meet. It’s not 30 years ago anymore. It’s expensive to live on the West Coast now.”

Earl said that the wage increase is a step in the right direction, but he would have preferred the $15 an hour figure that they have been pushing, which is the crux of the Local 503 SEIU’s statewide initiative.

In light of the latest senate bill, it is not certain yet whether a measure supported by SEIU to increase the statewide minimum wage to $15 will still appear on the ballot this November. Regardless, Oregon is expected to increase the minimum wage beginning next year, something that hasn’t happened since 2014.

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Troy Shinn

Troy Shinn

Politics News Reporter for the Oregon Daily Emerald. UO Senior studying Journalism and Film.