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Raising San Jose’s Minimum Wage: A Q&A With Marisela Castro

San Jose, Calif. saw the country’s largest minimum wage increase by percentage go into effect on March 11, growing from $8 to $10 per hour.

The idea came in large part from Marisela Castro, who thought about the topic and helping at-risk youth during a class project at San Jose State University.

Supporters say tens of thousands of workers in California’s third most populous city — with more than 967,400 residents and an 11-percent poverty rate — will see the benefits.

The grassroots mobilization effort grew to involve a host of students, community members and organizations, including Working Partnerships USA.

A quarter million voters approved the increase, known as Measure D, in November. Supporters needed 19,200 signatures to the put the measure on the ballot but they delivered nearly 35,000 signatures, Working Partnerships USA said.

The $2 -per-hour rise is equal to a $4,000 yearly increase for people who previously earned $8 per hour in the city. That means someone who works a 40-hour per week job for 50 weeks would see yearly earnings go from $16,000 to $20,000.

Equal Voice News talked with Castro about her role in the increased minimum wage campaign, how she thought of the idea and what she learned about organizing and working with students, community members and organizations.


Marisela Castro. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA
Marisela Castro. Photo courtesy of Working Partnerships USA


Name: Marisela Castro

Age: 28

Hometown: Gilroy, Calif.


Q: Could you talk about your background?

I was born in Gilroy. Both my parents were born in Mexico. All of my brothers and sisters were born here. I am the oldest. I am the first one who graduated from college (She graduated from San Jose State University with a bachelor’s degree in sociology. She is hoping to secure a full-time job). (My parents) are not doing farm work anymore. That was when I was growing up. They worked in Gilroy and San Martin. They just did whatever was in season. I know they did garlic, especially in Gilroy. They worked in a cannery for a while. I know they did strawberries.


Q: When was the first time you thought about raising the minimum wage?

It was in class. At that time, I was working with at-risk youth in Gilroy. That is a passion of mine. I was seeing what was going on at home. Their parents were working two jobs. They weren’t home. They were trying to provide necessities. Going through that with them and being in class and how low the minimum wage has been, it kind of all clicked. At that time, I was close to my kids. Seeing them go through this struggle at home – how can I say this – it was really, I wish I could do something. I had to do something. I couldn’t let them keep going through this. I had to do something.

It was in 2010, early in my semester at San Jose State. I want to say sometime in October. We were reading about this. We went through a whole section in our class about the minimum wage. And I was thinking about my kids and their hardships that their younger brothers and sisters would go through as well. That sparked the whole thing.

I believe right after class, I went to my professor’s office hours. I said, ‘I think this is a real issue. I think we should try to establish a policy for a higher minimum wage.’ My professor said, ‘Research it.’


Q: Who will benefit from this?

All kinds of people will benefit from this, a lot of families.


Q: How did you organize to implement your idea?

It was a long process. When I started organizing, I didn’t know anyone from San Jose State. It was my first semester. I would go to classrooms and say, ‘Hey, I’m trying to get some help raising the minimum wage. If you’re interested, give me a call.’ At the end of the semester, I only had one person to go out and do it. But the professor, toward the end of the semester, said he was going to teach a social action class. I took that class and I was able to give a mini presentation. During that time (some classmates) formed a group.

Supporters in San Jose, Calif. campaigned for a higher minimum wage, which started on March 11, 2013. John Carlos, known for raising his fist in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics, joined a rally last year. Photo courtesy of Scott Myers-Lipton
Supporters in San Jose, Calif. campaigned for a higher minimum wage, which started on March 11, 2013. John Carlos, known for raising his fist in Mexico City during the 1968 Olympics, joined a rally last year. Photo courtesy of Scott Myers-Lipton

The first organization that joined was a homeless organization. And then, after that, we had charities. We had different organizations. That’s when I thought it was moving forward.

Yes, we organized by word of mouth. We walked around. We handed out flyers. We went to bus stations. Anywhere that we knew there would be people, that’s where we went. It was all in San Jose.


Q: What did you learn from all of this?

I think that if we can actually join together, we can change the way the whole system is working. Because I feel that there is democracy left. I feel that if you just pay more attention and unite and get out there, we can actually see what we want out of this world.


Q: Why do you think this effort was successful?

I don’t know. I think it was the right time for it. I think people know it’s not OK to pay that low. It’s not OK to have poverty wages.


Q: When you met minimum wage opponents, what did you say to them?

I would say, ‘Try living on $8 an hour for a month.’


Q: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Change is possible.

— Interview conducted by Brad Wong, assistant news editor for Equal Voice News 


Working Partnerships USA estimates that 76,300 people will be affected by the increase. Of that number, 40,300 workers will be directly affected and 36,000 will see indirect benefits. An indirect benefit might be when a worker who earns more than $8 per hour receives a pay increase because he or she is at a higher wage scale, the group said.

In November, Cindy Chavez, executive director of Working Partnerships USA, wrote an op-ed for Equal Voice News about how “people power” paid off with the wage increase campaign.

The Silicon Valley Business Journal reports the wage increase could generate $190 million in new regional spending. Direct and indirect wage beneficiaries might be more than 69,200 people and some businesses have reduced hours because of the new pay rate, the media company said.

2013 © Equal Voice for America’s Families Newspaper


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