Minimum wage, maximum challenge

For the first time in Berkeley history, the vast majority of low-wage workers, who are disproportionately women or racial and ethnic minorities, are now guaranteed a living wage. Although this achievement was an uphill struggle — the climb seemed perpendicular at times — a minimum wage proposal was just unanimously enacted by the Berkeley City Council. Unlike San Francisco’s minimum wage ordinance, which was adopted in 2003, Berkeley has not until now entered modern times by agreeing that the city of Berkeley has a legal obligation to improve the standard of living for very-low-wage workers. Beginning Oct. 1 of this year, the minimum wage will be $10 an hour. Next year wages will increase to $11.00 an hour. In 2016, wages will peak at $12.53. Although it is certainly not a living wage, it will be among the highest in the nation.

Many activists have been disappointed, however, that the Berkeley City Council scuttled a more generous proposal submitted by its Labor Commission whose nine members were all appointed by members of the City Council. But being disappointed is not the same as being discouraged. An attempt will be made to persuade the City Council and to also craft a ballot initiative that will improve the current ordinance. Working people deserve a wage hike to at least $15 an hour, an annual cost-of-living adjustment, paid vacation and paid sick leave. And they deserve it soon.

The record shows that the better route for working people and their allies is the initiative. Minimum wage activists won an annual cost-of-living adjustment, or COLA, in 11 states. Significantly, only in Vermont was a COLA achieved by a legislative body. The other 10 were won via the initiative. The reason is that legislators tend to be more conservative than the voters who elected them. It is not surprising because the business community generally finances electoral campaigns, and furthermore, once in office, the pressure to cater to business interests is enormous. That is the case even at the local level, including the City of Berkeley.

So although we will continue to press the City Council to improve the minimum wage ordinance, it is necessary to put an initiative on the ballot that will fill in the holes. For both legal and pragmatic reasons, we cannot put it on the ballot until November 2016, which is the year when the minimum wage will peak at $12.53. This is to our advantage because it will then not be too much of a leap to make the argument that working people should receive at least $15 an hour. Of course, the initiative will include a COLA and paid sick leave.

A paid sick leave provision is tremendously important because it is a public as well as a labor issue. The Oakland minimum wage initiative, which will be on the November ballot, includes a very good sick leave provision. Not surprisingly, an Oakland poll showed that more than 80 percent of the public support paid sick leave for working people. When workers come to work ill because they are unable to afford to lose wages, they subject their co-workers to serious health risks. And those who are dining out are unknowingly subjected to infectious diseases by sick workers who prepare and serve the meals. Clearly, paid sick leave is a critical public health issue.

How nice it would be if passing progressive legislation would complete our obligations. But unfortunately, packing our bags and walking away from our victory would be a serious mistake. The record on labor violations by businesses is very high, and rigorous enforcement is often weak and even absent. In a national survey of minimum wage violations, fully 26 percent were paid less than the legally required minimum wage. Incredibly, 60 percent were underpaid by more than a dollar per hour.

As elsewhere, Berkeley workers have not been adequately protected from workplace violations. Since the enforcement procedure is mainly complaint-driven, workers who do complain have little protection against retaliation. Moreover, their complaints are often ignored. So our task is to determine how best to combat the widespread problem of wage theft.

What Berkeley needs is a public agency that is responsible for enforcing compliance. San Francisco’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement serves as an ideal model for Berkeley. According to its annual report, it recovered in the fiscal year 2012-13 $1,483,048 in back wages and interest for employees who were victims of wage theft.

Workers in Berkeley are also entitled to an agency that protects them against wage theft. But only concerted action will make such a dream a reality. Fortunately, we are on the way to building an alliance between labor and the community. In fact, along with low-wage workers, the coalition of labor, religious institutions, progressive organizations and unaffiliated progressive individuals explains why we have achieved a minimum wage in Berkeley. Continuing to work together will also give us a good shot at assuring that the minimum wage ordinance is fully implemented. Public officials must protect the legal rights of working people who are honestly doing their job on behalf of their employers and the public they serve.