Oakland’s fight for less-than-15?

Scott Jay

Reposted from  The Outsider.

California’s minimum wage of $8/hour is not enough to survive on in the Bay Area, certainly not in San Francisco – which already has its own higher minimum wage or in Oakland – which does not. A full-time worker making $8 an hour earns about $1280 a month before taxes, barely enough for rent and leaving hardly anything left over to to buy food or take a bus to work, not to mention covering the high costs health care or childcare. The tech explosion is driving up the cost of living in the Bay Area and in response there are campaigns in both San Francisco and Oakland to place initiatives on the November ballot to raise the minimum wage. But while San Francisco’s minimum wage initiative is for a $15 minimum wage, Oakland’s only raises the wage to $12.25 — even though largely the same groups are behind both proposals.

Any other year, Oakland’s increase might seem like a generous pay raise — it’s certainly unlikely that any minimum wage worker will turn it down. But this is the year of “Fight for 15,” a nationwide campaign of low wage workers led by Service Employees International Union (SEIU) to essentially double the current pay of most fast-food and retail workers. The excitement around the campaign was not merely that they were asking for a raise, or even a standard minimum wage hike, but boldly insisting on a substantial increase for the lowest-paid workers at billion dollar chain stores like McDonald’s and Burger King. The commitment to “Fight for 15” was supposed to be a nationwide benchmark for fair pay, not only pressed forward in San Francisco, New York and Chicago but also in places like Oakland, St. Louis and Milwaukee. So it was surprising to see Lift Up Oakland, which includes SEIU Local 1021, put forward an initiative for a much smaller increase.

Business interests who view any minimum wage increase as an impending apocalypse will be pleased by the moderation in Oakland. Not pleased are the grassroots working poor who make up the bulk of the campaigns support and thought that “Fight for 15” meant just that – not “settle for $12.25.” The disappointments, however, may not be over.

A public records request to Oakland city hall has revealed that Lift Up Oakland representatives have been quietly meeting with Oakland City Council members to discuss an alternative minimum wage plan since early February. This plan would have the Oakland City Council use its power to put a minimum wage initiative on the ballot, circumventing the signature gathering campaign currently underway. It has been suggested the Council’s proposed ballot measure could be even weaker than the one currently proposed by labor groups.

Upon submitting Lift Up Oakland’s $12.25 proposal to the city — a legal requirement for gathering signatures — Pete Castelli, executive director of SEIU Local 1021, forwarded the text to Mayor Jean Quan along with this comment: “It does not have exclusion for any exceptions as written currently. Perhaps that can be discussed later in the process.” Exclusions to weaken the minimum wage proposal could include exceptions for small businesses, who might see a long phase in for the minimum wage increase as is being proposed in San Francisco and Seattle. But what “process” is he referring to?

Another email from a Lift Up Oakland representative clarifies this. Niki Fortunato Bas, the executive director of East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, suggested in an email to Oakland Ciy Council member Kernighan that “I’d like to discuss your opinion on putting this measure before voters to decide and whether you as Council President would be open to placing this measure on the Nov. ballot.” In case that was not sufficiently clear, Bas sent Kernighan a follow up email stating “I look forward to talking again about the possibility of Council placing this measure on the ballot for voters.”

These emails suggest a “plan B” for Lift Up Oakland—if they cannot get the measure on the ballot, have the City Council or the Mayor do it for them, most likely at the cost of excluding even more low wage workers from the wage increase. Perhaps this was organized labor’s plan from the start — using the signature gathering campaign to threaten to take a $150 minimum wage to the voters as a public relations ploy to force Oakland City Council to take more modest action.

At least two other City Council members have been communicating with the campaign: Dan Kalb and Council member and Oakland mayoral candidate Libby Schaaf. Neither have done much to earn the support of labor. Kalb’s first term has been hardly noticeable, while Schaaf is often on the opposite side of progressives with her advocacy of city pre-crime and surveillance initiatives.

Other internal City of Oakland emails show the city’s expressing its own budgetary concerns as an employer. The concerns come from the staff of the City Administrator’s office who believe, the Fight for 15 campaign could be victorious and that a $15/hour minimum could be imminent. Recently departed City Administrator Deanna Santana asked her staff how much such an increase would cost the City of Oakland and a response from the payroll office indicated that there are 781 city employees making less than $15/hour — all but 52 of them over 18 years old. It turns out that raising their pay to $9 would cost over $85,000 in total compensation while raising it to $15 would cost about $1.2 million.

A week later, Santana sent back a handwritten note on a copy of this report asking “$12.25?” To a penny-pinching budget hawk like Santana, a million dollars may seem like a lot of money, but it is chump change for the city budget. Yet, while the city is falling over themselves to spend tens of millions on hiring new police, the Democrats of the Oakland City Council cannot even bring themselves to pay all city employes a living wage – an act they could achieve with the stroke of a pen. Raising the minimum wage for all 781 of the City of Oakland lowest paid employees to $15/hour would cost the city about the budgetary equivalent of seven police officers, based on a recent estimate by Eastbay Express that each Oakland officer costs the city $180,000.

Concerns at city hall over the proposed wage increase go far beyond the city of Oakland’s own budgetary bottom-line. Many local businesses employ low-wage workers and those businesses have their own friends and allies in the halls of power. In another email thread disclosed though public records request, City Administrator staffer Fred Blackwell noted that, “$15 would be far above anything done in the country. I am not sure that we even want to raise the number in a conversation with the [Chamber of Commerce]. They will hang up the phone.” With $12.25, Blackwell is saved the embarrassment of having to make that phone call.

Some Oakland city council representatives are reluctant to raise the minimum wage to the compromised rate of $12.25. Council member Larry Reid has proposed a raise to $10.20, precisely in order to forestall efforts to raise it any higher. “I think it’s too much, too soon,” Reid told the Oakland Tribune. “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 fact, $10.20 is even higher than Reid initially wanted. According to one of the City Administrator emails, “[Reid’s] original proposal at Rules of $9 by 2015 was not consistent with State law, so his [sic] changed it to $10.20 by 2016,” wrote Kelly Kahn, Economic and Workforce Development Director at the Oakland City Administrator’s office. Kahn is referring to the minimum wage increase passed by Governor Jerry Brown, raising the minimum to $9 in July and $10 in 2015.

Historically the minimum wage is not increased all that often. When we have this moment of political will to increase the minimum wage low-wage workers and their supporters need to raise their voices loudly to push it as high as possible. It is unlikely that there will be another opportunity to address raising the wage next year, or even next election season.

To its credit the current proposal of $12.25 increase will include — in its current form, anyway — annual increases with inflation. This will help minimum wage workers from falling too far behind, but it will also insure that “giant leaps,” like the one currently in the air for $15, will be off the table for many years to come. After all, who needs to fight for a giant leap in wages when you can just wait for inflationary pressure to give the perception of a raise.

Lift Up Oakland is organizing signature gatherers and holding rallies in support of the current legislation, while their leaders know full well that they are planning to water down their proposal even more than they already have. Many of the campaigns supporters are already frustrated by the current compromise legislation but accept it under the hope that it will not be weakened any further. This, however, is precisely what is being prepared in meetings with the Mayor and the City Council.

This would not be the first progressive campaign that drew in community support and a surge of activism, only to deliver them into the hands political compromises they never agreed to. Recent and bitter memories of organized labor’s abandonment of a push for a “Millionaire Tax” to fix California’s education budget still stand out in the progressive community. On March 5, 2012, thousands of students, teachers and others were mobilized to rally at the state Capitol in Sacramento demanding an end to education cuts. After a grassroots struggle that saw arrests inside the State Capitol, that campaign saw nurses and teachers unions act without their student support base to compromise with Brown for across the board tax increases.

More often than not, that is the nature of our political system. We get to vote — on a few things — but we hardly get the chance to decide what we get to vote on.

Minimum wage workers need a raise, but they also need assurance that their struggles will not be decided in backroom deals with city hall politicians and union leaders who make far more money than the people they represent ever will. The time for a true living wage for everyone working hard in the Bay Area is now.

Scott Jay is a writer and activist living in Oakland, California, where he has been active in the Occupy movement, the fight against police brutality and solidarity with port workers.