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Communities Move the Minimum Wage: Will the Federal Government?

“It’s Time for Ten.”

That simple message, easy to grasp and easy to repeat, was a critical detail in a successful grassroots campaign to raise the minimum wage to $10 an hour in San Jose, Calif.

The idea for the campaign grew out of a sociology class at San Jose State University ‒  a volunteer effort that gained momentum and unexpected supporters.  The measure captured 59 percent of the vote and raised the minimum wage by $2 an hour.

Employees at Philz Coffee in San Jose were given their $2 an hour minimum wage increases before the official March 11 start date. Employees are happier, customers are happy, said owner Nick Taptelis. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA
Employees at Philz Coffee in San Jose were given a $2 an hour minimum wage increases before the official March 11 start date. Employees are happier, customers are happy, said owner Nick Taptelis. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA

The pay hike went into effect on March 11, with some companies giving employees their raises weeks before the official day. They quickly reported happier workers, happier customers – and a big increase in applications from workers outside the city.

Even the entrenched San Jose business community, which bitterly opposed the minimum wage increase, changed its attitude, now promoting the fair pay as a selling point for local businesses.

Experts say it’s likely that minimum wage increases will be on the ballot in dozens other cities across the country next year. In California, efforts are already underway in a half-dozen cities, including Oakland, Santa Rosa and Eureka

As interest in raising the minimum wage sweeps much of the country, the San Jose State University students and their professor, Scott Myers-Lipton, are offering to share their winning recipe for better pay.

Myers-Lipton said the successful campaign can be replicated in most other cities.

“We had an idea that resonated.  We had an idea that was powerful. And we had the people-power to get it accomplished,” said Myers-Lipton.

Learn More About the Minimum Wage

Writer Robin Templeton takes a close look at the issue in this special report for Equal Voice News, “Minimum Wage: Not Just for the Poor.”

Read about one woman’s role in increasing the wage in California, “Raising San Jose’s Minimum Wage: A Q&A With Marisela Castro.”

Legions of energized volunteers went door-to-door, made phone calls and attended meetings for months to get the word out.

“They proved that you can win a campaign against big power and big money,” said Myers-Lipton.

The federal minimum wage, at $7.25, is impossible for a family to live on in most cities, even with two parents working full-time.  In his State of the Union address in February, President Barack Obama proposed a federal minimum wage increase to $9 – better, but still not realistic for families living in expensive cities.

However, states and cities are allowed to set their own minimum wage. San Francisco is the leader, with a $10.55 per hour minimum wage; Santa Fe, New Mexico follows closely at $10.51 per hour.

Ten years ago, Santa Fe became one of the first cities with its own minimum wage law. The National Employment Law Project defended the law against a legal challenge and won a landmark ruling confirming that municipalities have the authority to establish minimum wages that are higher than the federal and state levels.

The recipe is fairly simple, said Myers-Lipton: Be clear in your message, work hard, play by the rules, and learn how to get an initiative on the ballot.

A key ingredient in the minimum wage campaign was access to a “citizen’s initiative” the right of citizens to collect enough names on a petition to place a measure on the ballot for voters citywide or countywide to approve or reject.

While most states allow citizen initiatives, about a dozen – including some of the poorest states in the country – don’t give citizens the opportunity to place measures before voters. Instead, residents have to convince legislators to make the move.

Alabama, which has no state minimum wage, and defaults to the $7.25 federal minimum, also doesn’t allow citizens to place measures on the ballot. Legislators have traditionally bowed to the voice of small business and there has been little effort to raise the wage.

“It just hasn’t been a priority that we have pushed with any continuity,” said Jim Carnes, spokesman for Alabama Arise Citizen’s Policy Project.  “We have so many other priorities; we have to tackle the issues we have a chance of getting a toehold on.”

To create change in Alabama and other non-initiative states, citizens have to convince sympathetic state legislators or local council members to raise the issues for them.

Derecka Mehrens and Scott Myers-Lipton delivered petitions to San Jose City Hall to put the minimum wage proposition on the November ballot. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA
Derecka Mehrens and Scott Myers-Lipton delivered petitions to San Jose City Hall to put the minimum wage proposition on the November ballot. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA

But most states give citizens the opportunity to put popular issues on the ballot.

Part of the recipe for success, said Myers-Lipton, is to have a clear  message.

“Our message was that if you work hard, and play by the rules, you deserve a fair wage, and $8 an hour is not fair since you can’t even afford rent in San Jose on that salary,” he said.

Early in the campaign, the students and their allies conducted a poll. Polling is expensive, and the results worthless if not done right.

The San Jose minimum wage campaign partnered with a university polling group that offered to do the poll for a fraction of the estimated $40,000 it would have cost.  The campaign provided the volunteers, who were trained by the polling group.

“Our team didn’t have a lot of money, but we had people. When you don’t have a lot of money, you have to use the resources you do have well,” said Myers-Lipton.

When the final votes came in on Nov. 6, volunteers learned their early poll results had been right on.

Getting the minimum wage initiative on the ballot was the next step.. Volunteers collected signatures from five percent of the electorate on a petition proposing that the minimum wage increase should be put to a vote of the people.

The group borrowed wording from an earlier San Francisco minimum wage ordinance, made a few changes, and ran it by the city clerk.  The group met with the city attorney to understand the next steps. Then they hit the streets.

“In five weeks, we gathered 36,000 signatures,” said Myers-Lipton.  Afterward, they realized they had missed an important opportunity during signature gathering to gather more names of volunteers to help in the next stages of the campaign.

At that point, the San Jose City Council had an opportunity to adopt the minimum wage themselves as an ordinance, but opted to put it to a public vote.

“We had a small group of determined people who come together and said they were going to make a change. They were willing to do the necessary work,” he said.

The group grew into a coalition, partnering with non-profits, faith groups, and eventually labor organizations joined in. The effort was youth focused, drawing on their energy, but making it clear from the start that minimum wage isn’t a youth issue – high school and college students aren’t the majority being paid minimum wage. It’s a family issue.

Research showed that most people – especially professionals and those most likely to vote in San Jose, didn’t know what the minimum wage was. Many were stunned to find out that it was $8 – and families were trying to scrape by and not making it.

It makes sense to many that people who work hard 40 hours a week in the United States should not live in poverty and should not raise their families in poverty.

Then there was the slogan “It’s Time for Ten.”

“It was our chant. It was effective, uplifting and powerful. People loved it,” said Myers-Lipton.

But the wage increase supporters had strong – and well-funded – opposition from the Chamber of Commerce, San Jose Downtown Association, the California Restaurant Association and other business groups.

“The ramifications for the restaurant industry will be significant, forcing restaurateurs to make operational decisions, such as cutting back on employee hours, laying off employees, raising prices or closing,” the association argued.

Faced with a landslide approval of the measure in November, the opposition did a quick turn-around by the time the increase went into effect March 11.

“Increasingly, consumers are taking ethical considerations into account when they shop,” Scott Knies, executive director of the San Jose Downtown Association, wrote in an opinion piece with labor leader Ben Field in the San Jose Mercury News.

“We want to make sure customers know that businesses in San Jose will have the same great products with an even better standard of service. The business association has launched an “Earn ‘n’ Spend in San Jose” campaign.

Not all living wage campaigns have had such conciliatory outcomes. In Long Beach, Calif., voters approved a wage increase to $13 for workers in hotels with more than a hundred rooms.

Hotel operators of some of the resort area’s largest hotels decided they would rather close down rooms ‒ so they only had 99 rooms– and fire workers days before Christmas, rather than pay a living wage.

But in San Jose, most business owners embraced the increase.

Philz Coffee, part of a San Francisco-based coffee company, put the minimum wage increase into effect early at the San Jose store.

“Right away, we noticed that a lot of employees were happier, said Nick Taptelis, owner of the coffee shop.  “I saw nothing but good things, productivity increased, customer service improved, customers were happy.”

In turn, employees are spending a little more money downtown. Taptelis said he didn’t raise coffee prices at his shop, but some restaurants downtown increased prices slightly.

“I think downtown is already seeing a bit of a difference,”  said Taptelis. “No one is really talking about it much anymore. It’s business as usual.”

 2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


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