Story and photos by Pete Shaw
At a Portland City Hall rally on Tuesday in celebration of Equal Pay Day, most of the City’s commissioners and some state-level politicians spoke of the great gains that have been made toward leveling the pay gap between women and men, as well as the need to go further. The rhetoric surrounding those necessary future steps, however, lacked concrete details.
Speakers at the rally praised Oregon’s history of fighting for better wages, including it being the first state to have a minimum wage law, as well as its current $9.10 per hour minimum wage–the second highest in the nation. They also noted the still lagging pay equality for women and people of color, supported by numerous structural barriers, although again, details were lacking as to how those barriers would be destroyed. But the issue clearly on the minds of the 30 or so people in attendance outside of City Hall was the minimum wage.
The rally took on heightened meaning as Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who emceed the event, finds himself in an unexpected battle with Nick Caleb, the 30-year-old Concordia professor seeking to unseat him. Caleb has called for the minimum wage in Portland to be raised to $15 an hour, and he has put forth to accomplish it. The increase will take effort–when Oregon passed its current minimum wage law, which is tied to the consumer price index, it forced cities to give up the possibility of passing their own minimum wage–but it is achievable.
Caleb’s plan stands in stark contrast with Saltzman’s. Where Caleb says City workers should receive at least $15 an hour and wants the $15 minimum wage a condition of any contract that the City enters into with a business or contractor–the current law allows for these exceptions–at the rally Saltzman offered vague alternatives, such as lobbying the state legislature, to change the law. He offered no timetable, and did not state a figure he favors for the minimum wage.
“We can act in this city right now on raising the minimum wage,” said Caleb. “Appealing to the state legislature is a total punt and fails to give working people the attention they deserve from our elected officials.”
Saltzman was recently endorsed by the Portland Business Alliance, and in the questionnaire he answered in seeking their approval, he was asked what he would do “as an elected official to improve wages and income.” Saltzman’s comment closed with “I also support increasing the minimum wage,” but again, without specifics.
At the rally, Saltzman spoke about the four steps necessary to raise the standard of living for all Oregonians, which included a minimum wage to bring people out of poverty. One must question, however, how much Saltzman–and for that matter, all city commissioners except Amanda Fritz who has worked tirelessly with the houseless group Right 2 Dream Too (R2DToo) in its search for a permanent home–really care about people in poverty, considering how he has dealt with people without housing.
A few years ago, when Saltzman oversaw the Bureau of Development Services, he effectively levied fines against R2DToo in excess of $20,000, claiming it was an unpermitted recreation park-campground in violation of Oregon Administrative Rules. In the past few months, as R2DToo has continued its quest for a permanent space, Saltzman has sometimes shown unveiled contempt for R2DToo, including a February council meeting where he worried about the City creating “a situation where affordable housing money is bleeding over into Right 2 Dream Too.”
The overarching difference between Caleb and Saltzman on the minimum wage issue was crystallized at the rally when Saltzman spoke about pay equity: “Luckily, we live in a state and city that values these issues.” Valuing issues such as pay equity and a living wage are not matters of luck, and Saltzman’s language comes from the same wellspring that says these changes are not done through the hard work of people demanding greater justice and forcing politicians to bend to their will, but instead, are due to the munificence of those in power.
“Until Commissioner Saltzman produces a plan with specific details about how he will implement a living wage for all Portlanders,” said Caleb, “his talk about pay equity can’t be taken as a serious plan. We need leaders who have ideas and will not simply place the responsibility on other jurisdictions to solve our problems.”