Lifting up the Bay Area

Frank Jones reports on the fight for a living wage in Oakland and the East Bay--and the ways big business and the Democratic Party are trying to undermine it.

Oakland residents rally for the Lift Up Oakland referendum (Lift Up Oakland)Oakland residents rally for the Lift Up Oakland referendum (Lift Up Oakland)

ON THE ballot in Oakland in November is a minimum wage measure that would be a big boost to Oakland's low-wage workers if it passes.

The referendum, sponsored by the Lift Up Oakland campaign, would raise the city's minimum wage from the $9-an-hour level implemented statewide this month--before that, the state minimum was $8--to $12.25 an hour for all workers. The measure would require automatic increases for the cost of living (of roughly 25 cents a year). It would include tipped and non-tipped workers alike, and would mandate paid sick leave for all workers.

The Lift Up Oakland campaign follows from the progress made by the movement of low-wage workers in Seattle pressuring the mayor and City Council members to pass the strongest local minimum wage law yet. Since then, San Francisco's mayor and city supervisors have agreed to support a referendum that is comparable to Seattle's new law, and even stronger in some respects. Bay Area cities Richmond and Berkeley have passed higher minimum wages because of the threat of an independent ballot measure backed by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 1021.

But in Berkeley, Richmond and Oakland, there is a pushback from business interests and their allies among the Democratic Party that dominates elected positions--and that could spell trouble for upcoming ballot initiatives.

Anchoring all these efforts is Lift Up Oakland. Through months of work, the union-sponsored coalition gathered 33,682 signatures to get its measure on the November ballot. Whatever Democrats council members and the mayor do in the coming weeks and months, there will be a referendum for a $12.25 an hour minimum wage on the ballot come November.

But the Democrats are counter-attacking. After complaining about being left out of the process, Mayor Jean Quan and four Council members are scheming with the Oakland Chamber of Commerce to get a counter-measure on the ballot through City Council vote. That vote is expected to take place on July 29.

The language they propose might make their measure sound better to an unwary voter, since it sets the minimum wage at $13. But in reality, their measure is a much worse deal for workers. It has less sick leave and it excludes tipped workers.

There is a byzantine system for dividing workers into two tiers, one of which gets to $13 in three years, the other in five years. When you take into account lost money from cost of living, the two-tiered system would leave workers either at the same wage as Lift Up Oakland's or slightly worse, after three or five years with much lower incomes.

This is an important fight, not only because winning the highest wage possible for all Oakland workers is important, but because it is a test of the course Lift Up Oakland has taken. The Oakland campaign pursued its referendum independently of City Council members--it asked for support from Council members. Early on, before many signatures were gathered, members of the union and non-profit group leadership of Lift Up Oakland sent e-mails about possible negotiations. In the end however, Lift Up Oakland gathered signatures, and didn't sit down for a bargaining session with political leaders.

A win for Lift Up Oakland against the Chamber of Commerce's attempt to push through a countermeasure would set a precedent for future fights that the movement for a living wage will stand independent of the Democrats and fight for what it wants.

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HOW DO the Lift Up Oakland proposal and the Chamber of Commerce's counter-measure compare?

An estimated one-quarter of Oakland workers would get a raise under the Lift Up Oakland measure. And they would get it in 2015, unlike the phased-in measures in San Francisco, if the proposed referendum passes, and Seattle, under the new law. Thus, the proposed $12.25 an hour would be the highest in the country, at least for a time.

Raising the minimum wage is an anti-racist measure--in Oakland, much like the rest of America, workers of color are disproportionately concentrated in low-wage workplaces. According to a University of California Berkeley study, "Workers of color (Black, Hispanic, and Asian) make up between 57.8 to 66.4 percent of the total workforce in Oakland--but they represent between 74.7 and 82.6 percent of workers impacted by a minimum wage increase to $12.25."

A small volunteer force led the way in gathering signatures to qualify the ballot measure, including social justice nonprofit groups, socialists and the left wing mayoral campaign of Dan Siegel. Volunteers from these groups and others gathered one-third of the total signatures--the other two-thirds came from paid gatherers funded almost entirely by the local unions spearheading the campaign: SEIU Local 1021, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5 and UNITE-HERE Local 2850.

Initial polls put support for the initiative at around 50 percent. However, a more recent survey showed 75 percent support for the referendum.

Given this level of support, it's no wonder the Oakland Chamber of Commerce is trying to win backing for a tamer proposal. The measure would raise the minimum wage to $13 by 2017, but only for workers employed at businesses with more than 20 people. For those who work for companies with fewer than 20 people, and for workers at nonprofits, the minimum would only get to $13 an hour by 2019.

This can't really be called an "exception" since it covers a huge portion of the low-wage workers in Oakland. The largest employer in the city is the nonprofit health care giant Kaiser Permanente. There are large numbers of nonprofits in the Oakland economy, and some of the small franchises of big corporations like McDonald's would also fall into the fewer-than-20-workers category.

With cost-of-living increases under the Lift up Oakland measure running at about 25 cents a year, the Chamber of Commerce's slightly higher target of $13 an hour would actually be worth less by the time the vast majority of low-wage workers in Oakland actually get there--and, of course, it provides less money during the four-year phase-in. Plus, the business-supported measure mandates less paid sick leave.

The chamber of commerce's measure also leaves out youth in city internships or training, social workers directly paid by the government and tipped workers, who all would keep the state minimum wage of $9.

All of this is a very complicated, calculated divide-and-conquer maneuver by the business community. If its measure gets on the ballot, whichever measure gets the most votes will prevail. The Chamber of Commerce is banking on voters choosing their measure because it sets a higher final figure, with all the conditions and delays hidden.

If both measures are on the ballot, there will need to be a big public outreach campaign about the difference between them. The message of this campaign must be that if Lift up Oakland's initiative is defeated and the Chamber of Commerce's passed, Oakland business owners will walk away with some $300 million or more from the lowest paid Oakland workers over the next five years.

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IN SAN Francisco, labor backed a proposal for a $15 an hour minimum wage, with a phase-in through 2017. After negotiations with Mayor Ed Lee, city supervisors and some business representatives, unions agreed to a proposal that adds another year to the phase-in period.

Of course, in a city like San Francisco, one of the most expensive in the country, low-wage workers need an immediate increase to a $15 an hour minimum, with more to come after that. But the final proposal, if it passes, would be better than Seattle's new law--there are no "carve-outs" for companies offering health care, or that employ tipped workers. It's telling that even without any grassroots mobilization, Lee agreed to a compromise so quickly.

In contrast to the signature-gathering efforts of Lift Up Oakland, in Richmond and Berkeley, coalitions working for a minimum wage had a strategy of meeting with individual city council members to try to persuade them to push through a living wage. But this insider strategy ran into trouble in Berkeley, where Berkeley City Council members stalled until they thought it was impossible to get a better measure on the ballot, and then voted for an insulting raise to $10.75 an hour by the start of 2016.

Fortunately, SEIU Local 1021 promptly proposed to minimum-wage campaigners in Berkeley that they put forward a minimum-wage proposal independent of the City Council. Big protests at the next council meeting and the threat of a union-sponsored measure pressured the City Council to increase its minimum wage hike to something closer to that proposed by Lift Up Oakland.

Local 1021 is considering a ballot initiative for next year that would get the minimum wage closer to $15 an hour, but the question of when to gather signatures is complicated because campaigners want a vote when University of California-Berkeley students are in town.

There is a debate in the Berkeley movement between those on one side who want to continue with a higher minimum wage initiative independent of the City Council, backed by SEIU Local 1021, and those who want to declare victory now. The "We've won, let's stop now" group is mainly centered among liberal Democrats in a formation called the Wellstone Democratic Renewal Club.

Meanwhile, in Richmond, the City Council has voted for a measure that increases the minimum wage more slowly and is full of exemptions, such as exemptions for minors or employees who receive tips. Local 1021 is considering an independent measure here, too, but it depends on what local forces would support the campaign. Reportedly, the Richmond Progressive Alliance, which includes Greens and liberal Democrats, is getting cold feet about working on such a measure.

The barriers to getting on the ballot are lower Berkeley and Richmond. Referendum supporters in Berkeley need less than 10,000 signatures, and in Richmond, the number is only a couple thousand. By contrast, in Oakland, there hasn't been an initiative on the ballot in five years because referendums need 30,000-plus signatures in a city with a population of 400,000.

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THE LIFT Up Oakland campaign has some clear advantages over other Bay Area minimum wage initiatives, and its $12.25 an hour would be a big step forward if it passes in November.

But it could have been an even stronger effort in a couple ways.

First, $12.25 an hour, while an undoubted advance for anyone making the current minimum wage, isn't even close to a living wage. As SEIU Local 1021's magazine Worker Power points out, "If you want to live in a one-bedroom apartment in Oakland or San Francisco, you better make close to $30 an hour." Thus, $12.25 an hour has to be the start toward a higher minimum still, or workers will be priced out of the core cities of the Bay Area.

But it's not just about what we need that's important, since we've needed a much higher living wage for a long time. The real question is what can win at this point.

Not long ago, a demand for a $15 an hour minimum wage would have seemed unrealistic. But the last several years have seen the Occupy movement, the strikes by low-wage workers at fast-food giants and Walmart, and the excitement around the election of a socialist City Council member in Seattle who focused her campaign on the Fight for 15.

After 30 years of unrelenting defeats for the labor movement, it's understandable that many unions have a limited view of what's possible. But if you want evidence of the opening around the issue of a living wage, look at how polling for the Lift Up Oakland initiative went from 50 percent support to 75 percent in a few months, simply with a couple rallies and signature gathering!

In the initial discussions around the measure, many leaders of the organizations in the Lift Up Oakland coalition wanted to go for an $11 an hour minimum wage. But in Local 1021, there was a revolt of the membership that wanted more. After this, 1021 leaders went back to their coalition partners and pressured the rest of the Lift Up Oakland coalition to go for $12.25 an hour. That instinct by rank and file union members needs to be taken further.

There is another criticism of the Oakland initiative that is worth making--the Lift Up Oakland campaign needed to be more public.

So far, there have been two rallies, several meetings in churches, and a monthly tabling at the First Friday festival. Obviously, there was broader participation, since one-third of the signatures to qualify for the ballot were gathered by volunteers. But there were no campaign organizing meetings that could have helped people not in an organization committed to the initiative to plug into the campaign.

The Lift Up Oakland campaign felt more like a collection of groups mobilizing separately, rather than a united campaign that set a priority on drawing new forces into the struggle. And now, we face a pushback from Oakland City Council and business interests. To stop them and keep our aim of winning $12.25 an hour in November and more in the coming years, we need a movement that is more than the sum of its founding groups.

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ON THE national level, Barack Obama and Democrats in Congress put forward a halfhearted proposal for an increase in the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour--but quickly dropped it in the face of expected Republican opposition. In Sacramento, a bill to raise California's statewide minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017 failed to pass a state assembly panel, with numerous Democrats abstaining.

In the Bay Area, knowing that we will face pushback from the business community, we need to make sure to kill the Chamber of Commerce's countermeasure in Oakland. We also need to make sure a minimum wage initiative goes forward with signature gathering in Berkeley for a measure that's independent of City Council. And we need to get out the vote for a massive "yes" to Lift Up Oakland's referendum, which would give a lot of confidence to forces elsewhere in the region.

In the longer term, we need to figure out how to spread a small movement, and make it broader and more inclusive, like Occupy was.

For working class people in the Bay Area, this struggle is about more than the minimum wage--it's an existential struggle. The house flippers and hedge-fund-fueled real estate developers want to drive all working people out of Oakland, San Francisco and every other city where they want to take their racist, gentrifying crusade. We need to win a living wage to stop them--and we need a movement to win that wage.