A group of labor unions and liberal activist groups said Wednesday it will push to raise Oregon's minimum wage to $13.50, opening a divide with an existing group that's been pushing for a $15 wage floor.
The new Raise the Wage Coalition, backed by some of Oregon's most influential and well-financed interest groups, says it will also seek to give cities the right to set their own minimum wage if they believe $13.50 is too low.
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Organizers say their primary goal is to persuade state lawmakers to adopt their plan in next year's legislative session. But they say they'll begin collecting signatures for a ballot measure in case lawmakers don't sign off.
"The bottom line is, something is going to happen in 2016," Tom Chamberlain, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO, said in a conference call with reporters. "We want it to be in the Legislature. If not, we'll file our own ballot measure."
The effort is competing with a separate group, 15 Now, which advocates a $15 statewide minimum wage, without an option for cities to set their own. Organizers of that effort issued a statement pledging to "stand strong for $15."
State elections officials this month certified that the group advocating for $15 submitted 1,808 valid signatures, more than enough to clear the first hurdle for placing an initiative on the ballot. Ultimately, they'll need 88,184.
"$15 is not an arbitrary number," the statement said. "Numerous studies all show that $15 is the baseline for economic security and self-sufficiency for working people and their families here in Oregon."
The split leaves the potential for competing initiatives to qualify for next year's ballot.
Advocates of the $13.50 minimum wage say their research shows that much income would be sufficient in much of rural Oregon, and the freedom to set a higher minimum wage would allow higher-cost cities like Portland and Eugene to do so.
"People feel mixed about what the actual minimum wage should be," said Andrea Miller, director of Causa, an immigrant-rights group that is part of the coalition seeking $13.50. "We think that reflects the reality that needs and cost of living are different in different parts of the state."
Oregon's $9.25 minimum wage is the second highest in the nation. Business interests oppose raising it, saying a hike would be hard on small business owners. They also oppose lifting the so-called statewide pre-emption, which requires a uniform wage floor across the state, citing the complexity of complying with a patchwork of varying wage standards.