Will we "Lift Up Oakland"?

Alessandro Tinonga reports on a campaign to raise the minimum wage in Oakland.

Marching in Oakland behind the call for an increased minimum wage (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)Marching in Oakland behind the call for an increased minimum wage (Alessandro Tinonga | SW)

$68,243. THAT'S how much it costs for a family of three in Oakland to maintain a modest living standard over the course of a year, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Even that figure may be conservative--Oakland is quickly becoming one of the most expensive cities in the country. One news story reported that the median cost to rent a one-bedroom apartment is $1,857 a month.

"Even with a good union job, it has become harder and harder to take care of your family," said Yulisa Elenes, secretary treasurer of UNITE HERE Local 2850 and a former Oakland airport worker. "We need a raise...We deserve more to make a good living for our families."

In an effort to better the lives of low-wage workers, a coalition of unions and nonprofit organizations have launched "Lift Up Oakland," a campaign to increase the minimum wage in Oakland from the current $8.25 an hour to $12.25 an hour by March 2015.

Lift Up Oakland's initiators had originally proposed raising the minimum wage to $11 an hour, but increased it to $12.25 after the victory of socialist Kshama Sawant in her campaign for Seattle City Council and an impressive turnout for the national day of walkouts and protests by fast-food workers on December 5.

Even this raised minimum may well undersell working-class support for an even higher figure, closer to $15 an hour that low-wage workers are striking for. Nevertheless, a victory for Lift Up Oakland would a big step in the right direction. It deserves the support of all left-wing and radical forces and ought to serve as a unifying focus for the thousands of Oaklanders who took to the streets during the Occupy protests.

The Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy (EBASE), Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and UNITE HERE Local 2850 are the main backers of the campaign. They hope to get 30,000 signatures by June in order to get the measure on the ballot safely for the November 2014 election.

If passed, the measure will not only increase the pay of workers all over the city, but would mandate that employers allow workers to accumulate paid time off at a rate of one hour for every 30 hours of work. Small businesses, defined as those that employ less than 10 workers, can cap accumulated hours at 40, with 72 hours for larger businesses.

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THERE'S A crying need for the reforms proposed by the measure as many working-class people struggle to make ends meet.

"I'm not living with my husband right now, because I can't afford it," said Rei Bunly, a worker at the Oakland Airport at a panel discussion featuring low-wage workers telling their stories. Speaking about the Lift Up Oakland campaign, Bunly said, "This is not just about my family or the family I would like to have with my husband. This is [about] all the families out there in Oakland."

The measure comes at a critical time in a rapidly changing Oakland. The economic crisis of 2008 has caused massive suffering for the city's population. Despite a decline in unemployment, joblessness is still in the double digits, and even worse for people of color.

According to EBASE, "In 2010, parts of West Oakland had stark unemployment rates as high as 44-45 percent, and East Oakland as high as 31-35 percent. In the East Bay, African Americans had unemployment rates nearly twice that of whites, and over 60 percent higher than the overall unemployment rate in the East Bay."

As a result, poverty has forced thousands of working-class residents out of the city. At least one in 14 Oakland homes were foreclosed in the last half-decade. Even after the end of the Great Recession, a majority of Alameda County food pantries reported more people looking for food last year than the year before. Life expectancy in the East Bay varies by up to 16 years, depending on which zip code you live in. Oakland's Black population dropped by 23 percent between 2000 and 2010.

To fill the void, businesses and investors looking to cash in on the tech boom in San Francisco are looking across the bay to Oakland for new opportunities. Start-ups are looking to establish their business in Oakland and other companies are looking to expand. Vacant properties are being bought up in droves by real estate firms, and those units are bring filled with workers who commute to San Francisco. Politicians and pundits have emphatically praised Oakland's 7 percent growth in the last year--while downplaying the hardships of thousands of Oakland residents.

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THE LIFT Up Oakland campaign is an important development in the struggle to turn the tide against the wave of privatization and gentrification engulfing the city. If passed, the measure will bring much-needed relief--and could encourage more low-wage workers to organize.

"I work at Taco Bell and have to take care of two disabled parents...to feed everyone, I have to go to the food bank," said Rhonesha V. "If we get $12.25, I'll be able to take care of my needs. Lift Up Oakland will give hope. We can reach out to people."

Most groups in the coalition are optimistic that they will be able to gather enough signatures by June to get the measure on the ballot. Over 10,000 signatures have been gathered so far, and the leading unions in the campaign are spending thousands of dollars to hire professional signature gatherers to meet the goal.

However, the measure is expected to face stiff opposition. Even before the campaign officially launched, several right-wing think tanks started to express their dismay that business might be forced by law to pay their workers more.

Recently, Larry Reid, president of the Oakland City Council, announced his intention to pass a law increasing the city minimum wage to $10.20 an hour by next year. This maneuver is an effort to head off support for the Lift Up Oakland measure.

According to Inside Bay Area, "Reid said he hoped that passage of a smaller minimum wage hike might dim the chances for a $12.25 minimum wage in Oakland next year. 'I think it's too much, too soon,' he said. 'My hope is that my colleagues will listen to all the folks that will be impacted and come up with something that is fair.'"

In order to give the Lift Up Oakland initiative the best chance of winning, it is important that the key organizations behind the campaign orient toward building a movement. In addition to the opposition the measure faces from the City Council, more will undoubtedly come from the corporate press and the Oakland Chamber of Commerce.

While it is important that the coalition is focusing on securing enough signatures to get on the ballot, it also appears that there will not be a major public push until the measure qualifies for the ballot.

But Larry Reid's current effort to subvert the Lift Up Oakland campaign is a signal that Oakland's elite isn't going to wait until the summer to go on the offensive. Already, there are snippets in the press about how raising the minimum wage will "hinder growth" and "hurt Oakland's thriving restaurant scene." The time to build support for the measure on the streets is now.

The unions and nonprofits leading the campaign have taken important steps in putting forward this measure. From the beginning, they went around the City Council, focusing on a long-term strategy of public support to raise the minimum wage. So far, every shift of signature gathering by volunteers has elicited tremendous support from registered voters.

However, there needs to be an immediate effort to build a grassroots campaign that can strengthen and broaden support for the measure. The campaign should be holding meetings along with leaders of other community groups, unions and churches to talk about how to spread support for the measure. Public meetings could be held all over Oakland to talk about how the minimum wage will benefit the community. Low-wage workers should be encouraged to use the ballot initiative as a tool to help organize their co-workers.

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BUILDING A large, confident movement is the only way to adequately prepare for the opposition to come. For everyone who is committed to raising the minimum wage, the experience of Seattle must be studied and used as an example.

Last fall, Kshama Sawant ran as an open socialist for Seattle's City Council and highlighted the demand of a $15 an hour minimum wage in her campaign. By building a grassroots campaign that put this demand at the forefront, Sawant garnered enough support to win the election. The demand became so popular that Seattle's mayor and City Council had to voice their support for a $15 an hour minimum, too.

But the challenges that must be overcome to make the demand a reality are clear from nearby Sea-Tac, home to the region's main international airport, where voters passed a $15 an hour minimum wage referendum last November. Before and after the vote, the corporate elite fought the initiative with everything they had. They got a King County judge to rule that the referendum didn't apply to business at the airport--the majority by far of low-wage employers in the town.

Activists in Seattle are organizing for their own minimum wage ballot measure later this year, and the effort is gaining momentum, as Labor Notes reported:

A recent public hearing on income inequality drew 700-800 people, with probably 80 percent supporting the increase--a majority wearing the bright red T-shirts of the two principal coalitions driving the campaign, 15 Now and $15 for Seattle...A March for $15 on March 15 drew 600-700, a substantial portion of them union members, and was endorsed by unions and community organizations...

The campaign has spurred some innovative organizing within specific constituencies. The Transit Riders Union has formed Transit Riders for 15 and is signing up bus passengers at an impressive clip.

If this is a taste of what can be done around the demand for $15 an hour in Seattle, then surely it is possible to build public support for $12.25 an hour in Oakland. People power, in the streets and in the workplace, is the best way to carry forward the Lift Up Oakland campaign. By mobilizing thousands, it gives Oakland workers the strength to push the campaign forward. What's more, raising the minimum wage is but one part of a growing movement to build the power of workers.

On March 27, UNITE HERE Local 2850 held a march and rally to raise awareness about the contract fights for food service workers and to organize support for the Lift Up Oakland ballot measure. Leading with a banner reading, "This town hella needs a raise," over 300 union and nonunion workers participated. Many connected the fight to raise the minimum wage to building the labor movement.

Johnny Stake, a union worker at the Oakland Coliseum, spoke at the Thursday rally about the need to unite and struggle for more. "$15 is not enough," he said. "$20 isn't even enough. Corporations say they have no money. They lie every time they open their mouth...We need a united front. When people unite they can move mountains."