Jim Houser made sure to wear his brown mechanic’s shirt, the one with the “Jim” nametag and multiple certification patches, to last week’s meeting at City Hall.
The Portland City Council is considering a proposal to require businesses to provide sick leave for employees. Houser owns Hawthorne Auto Clinic and wanted the council to hear what business owners think of yet another government mandate.
Because, it turns out, he’s in favor of it.
So are dozens of other area business owners, principally those organized and represented by the Main Street Alliance Oregon and the Voice for Oregon Innovation and Sustainability, or VOIS Alliance.
Increasingly, small businesses are separating from the pack and speaking for themselves on social, political and economic issues. While the movement is relatively low-key for now, it represents a pushback by small-business owners who believe large corporations and their lobbyists have for too long assumed they were speaking for all businesses.
“There’s a realization that the unevenness of the playing field has increased over the last 30 years,” says Lee Mercer, Oregon director of Main Street Alliance.
Consider: Main Street Alliance and VOIS have been out front in support of the Portland sick leave proposal, which would require businesses to grant employees one hour of sick leave for every 30 hours worked, accruing up to five days per year, paid or unpaid depending on business size. The council may vote on the idea in March.
Alliance members, nationally and in Oregon, also recently issued strong statements in favor of immigration reform that provides a path to citizenship for undocumented workers. One Main Street member, Salem real estate broker Jose Gonzalez, calls it “more than smart politics — it’s smart economics.”
The increased visibility in public policy debates is something new for Oregon’s small business owners. In the past, many would say they were simply too busy making a living to get involved. Others didn’t want to risk alienating customers by stepping into controversy.
As a result, they don’t get their problems dealt with in an emergency session of the Legislature, as Nike did in December with its tax issue. They aren’t courted by city economic development directors or represented by legions of lobbyists.
But increasingly, small business owners are stepping out from behind the counter.
“Too often, small businesses are ‘spoken for’ by corporate lobbyists who claim to represent us but are really pushing a Big Business agenda,” Main Street Alliance says on its website. The group was founded in 2007.
“A lot of politicians call the name of small business, and often it’s not the small business I’m familiar with,” says Houser, of Hawthorne Auto Clinic, who is on the group’s executive board.
VOIS, founded in 2009, calls itself the “Chamber of Change” as opposed to Chamber of Commerce. It invites entrepreneurs to “join us in working for a level playing field for businesses that take care of their employees, protect the environment and make a positive difference in their communities.”
Tony Fuentes, co-owner of Milagros Boutique in northeast Portland and VOIS president, says the recession may have honed people’s instincts to personalize business dealings.
“People in general, workers and consumers, are beginning to think about the role their work and capital can have in advancing the overall sustainability of the community in the broadest sense,” Fuentes says.
To be fair, groups such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Associated Oregon Industries have raised questions about health care and offered ideas on immigration reform. They describe themselves as supportive of businesses regardless of size. But small businesses often feel left out of the discussions those groups take about positions.
State Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, says industry groups working with the Oregon Legislature appear to have moderated their approach on some issues and hold more diverse opinions. The agriculture industry, which often holds conservative views on regulations and taxes, has been less so on immigration reform and migrant housing issues, he says.
“The other thing you may be seeing is the growth of the (high) tech business,” says Beyer, chair of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee. “People in those industries tend to be socially progressive, although still fiscally conservative about government.”
With small businesses, however, time and distance limit their direct interaction with the Legislature in Salem. They tend to act closer to home.
“I see it more in the local issues,” Beyer says. “In Springfield, where I’m from, there are a lot more small and independent businesses that are very supportive of local government and interested in social issues.”
That view matches with survey results of Oregon small business owners, urban and rural, says Fuentes, of VOIS. Local entrepreneurs “feel a very personal stake in the overall future of the community,” he says. “The health and welfare of a business is not separate from the community, but part of it.”
A survey released by Main Street Alliance in September said 79 percent of respondents “see their workers as family and want to treat them right” by offering benefits such as health care and paid time-off.
Of 377 business owners surveyed, 54 percent said the thing they need most is simply more customers. Only 17 percent said lower taxes was key, and only 9 percent said fewer regulations was most important.
On the political side of things, 79 percent said the U.S. Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling was bad for small business. The decision equated campaign contributions with speech and freed corporations to spend unlimited amounts, a boon primarily for conservative candidates.
In the survey of Oregon small business owners, 72 percent favor a constitutional amendment “declaring that corporations are not people and money is not speech.” Eighty-eight percent said publicly-traded companies should be required to disclose all their political spending, including money funneled through third-party groups.
“It’s like people were just awakened,” says Houser, of Hawthorne Auto Clinic.
He roused during the 2008 presidential campaign, when an activist dropped by the repair shop to talk about health care reform. At the time, Houser was paying $100,000 a year in insurance premiums to cover himself and nine fulltime employees. Anything you can do to reduce that, he told the campaign worker, and I’m for it.
“We’re a little auto repair shop, and it’s a killer,” he says.
One thing led to another, and Houser, 66, found himself testifying before a congressional panel in favor of the Affordable Care Act, meeting with President Obama and returning to the White House after the bill passed. The act provided him a very welcome $12,900 tax credit on insurance costs and his premiums have dropped each of the past two years.
In the meantime, he’s provided paid sick days to full-time employees for 30 years and it hasn’t been a problem. Last year, his employees took an average of 2.7 days off sick. Houser says his father and grandfather also were small businessmen and provided similar benefits, and fair wages, to employees.
“In the exchange, you get extreme loyalty, which is so valuable to small business,” he says.