Four years ago this week, we saw the federal minimum wage rise to a meager $7.25 an hour. The state minimum wage has been stuck at $8.00 for five years. For a full-time worker, this amounts to just $16,640 — far below the national poverty level for a family of four ($23,550) and much less a living wage in the Bay Area.
Over the past three years, our Raise the Wage movement has talked with thousands of Bay Area voters about this issue. When asked whether they support an increase in their city’s minimum wage to at least $10 an hour, people overwhelmingly say “Yes!” On street corners and at grocery stores, there’s excitement and support. In community college classrooms, it’s not unusual for us to sign up every single student as a supporter, with many volunteering their time, labor and personal resources to the cause. Last November in San Jose, 60 percent of voters in this politically moderate city said yes to an increase to $10 for all workers — despite being bombarded with hundreds of thousands of advertising dollars predicting doom and catastrophe if the measure passed.
Why such overwhelming support? Because average voters have a basic sense of fairness. They understand that people who work hard and play by the rules should make a decent living. They understand that the challenges of small and local businesses cannot be solved by squeezing our most vulnerable workers to do more with less. They understand that when you give a raise to a low-wage worker, most of that money goes right back into the local economy.
If you listened to the naysayers, you would believe that poverty is simply an impossible problem to address. But if you talk to the 40,000 working people in San Jose who now have $4,000 a year more to spend supporting their families, you’ll hear a different story. You’ll hear about having more money to put food on their tables, to pay their rent and to put gas in their cars so that they can get to work and school.
We have already proven that we do not have to wait for some distant and watered-down solution from Sacramento or Washington. We can lead the way right here in the Bay Area to provide a high-road model of economic development and anti-poverty measures.
Last April, Berkeley City Council took an important first step when Mayor Tom Bates introduced a resolution directing the city manager to draft an ordinance that would set Berkeley’s minimum wage at $10.55 an hour and build in an automatic cost-of-living increase pegged to the region’s consumer price index. This was a bold measure that matched the progressive values of this city. Mayor Bates’ measure passed with a unanimous vote by the City Council. Now, the city’s citizen labor commission is studying the issue, receiving public comment and preparing its recommendation for council action. A vote could come as soon as this fall.
Last week, 100 community members, low-wage workers and friends rallied in downtown Berkeley and marched to the labor commission meeting to encourage Berkeley City Council to continue on its high-road path in raising the minimum wage. Please join our efforts. You can contact us at www.raisethewageEB.org.
Nicky Gonzalez Yuen is the founder of Raise the Wage East Bay. He is the chair of the political science department at De Anza College and was on the steering committee for the San Jose Minimum Wage Campaign.