Living wage fight flourishes in California
Campaigns underway in San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego
Dean Ferguson
volume:  
volume 35
issue 5
October 2014
imagestuff
At a Walmart store in the Crenshaw district of Los Angeles, a worker rings up sales. Walmart is among the most infamous of low-wage-paying employers. Photo credit: Robyn Beck / AFP / Getty Images

As the cost of living in California climbs upward at a racer’s pace, alliances of progressives, socialists and trade unionists have launched intense campaigns to raise the minimum wage in cities across the state.

San Francisco and Oakland have placed living wage measures on the November ballot; Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, under strong pressure from labor, has announced a plan to raise his city’s minimum wage to $13.25 per hour; and San Diego city council members overrode a mayoral veto to raise their minimum wage to $11.50 per hour. The relief offered by these measures is sorely needed. But for many Californians, the proposed increases won’t be nearly enough.

California’s minimum wage, which reached $9 per hour in June and is scheduled to go to $10 in 2016, is the highest in the country. But it is still pathetically inadequate.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than six million Californians live below the federal poverty level. Most are numbered among the working poor, often hustling between two or more jobs to make ends meet. Even mainstream politicians have taken notice of their plight.

On a recent visit to a Bay Area homeless shelter, San Francisco Congresswoman Jackie Speier was shocked to encounter a married couple with full-time jobs — the wife a grocery clerk, the husband an Office Max employee. They have made the shelter their sleeping quarters in order to save their wages for a deposit on an apartment.

Hard times in San Francisco. The relentless pace of gentrification has made San Francisco unlivable for many working class residents. Bloomberg Businessweek recently named San Francisco “America’s Best City,” but apparently neglected to consider the 23 percent of working San Franciscans living in poverty — residents for whom the $15 minimum wage awaiting voter endorsement in November would be a lifeline.

With the unanimous support of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors, the city’s Minimum Wage Act of 2014 should win approval this fall. If it passes, the law will raise the minimum wage of San Franciscans to $15 per hour by 2018. No workers will be exempt from its coverage or deprived of its benefits. The new law will reduce wealth inequality in a city whose cost of living is rapidly approaching Manhattan’s. According to UC Berkeley researchers, 142,000 workers will reap its advantages.

San Francisco’s Minimum Wage Act will not, of course, close the gaping divide between the city’s wealthy elite and working poor. In fact, according to the Insight Center for Community Empowerment, $15 per hour is 66 cents less than a single, childless adult living in San Francisco should earn to cover food, housing, healthcare and other essentials. For a single mother with two children, the deficit is even greater; $15 per hour won’t cover her family’s most critical needs. And the law’s gradual increases will come with agonizing slowness; its $15 plateau won’t be reached until January of 2018.

Harder times in Los Angeles. LA wage earners face a more daunting situation. Wage erosion in the Southland is more severe than in Northern California. According to the online real estate database Zillow, the average income in Los Angeles is 22 percent lower than San Francisco’s, making it the least affordable housing market in the country. A recent Los Angeles Times study showed that rentals in LA County were all but closed to minimum wage earners, unless they shared living space. Families with only one wage earner often verge on homelessness.

Los Angeles labor leaders are pushing hard to increase their city’s hourly minimum to $15 per hour. María Elena Durazo, head of the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor, argues that $15 is the lowest sum acceptable; 46 percent of Angelenos make less than that, which Durazo deems a basic living wage. It’s almost certainly not enough, but it’s far better than the statewide $9 per hour. Billboards unveiled by the Federation publicize the plight of low wage workers with outsized “city limits” signs reading “Los Angeles, City Limited, Poverty Wage Population 810,864.” Anxious to compromise, Mayor Garcetti has offered $13.25 by 2016; whether Durazo and her fellow labor leaders will buy into this proposal remains to be seen.

Enthusiasm for a living wage is rising throughout the state. Lift Up Oakland, a coalition of workers, students and religious leaders, is pressing for passage of a ballot initiative that will guarantee a minimum wage of $12.25 per hour to Oakland workers. Should the measure pass, its backers say, as many as 48,000 workers will receive a raise next March.

San Diego’s city council overcame the resistance of a Republican mayor to force through an hourly minimum of $11.50 in August, but the new law is already under assault from employers determined to overthrow it by referendum. Hotel and restaurant owners claim that a markedly increased minimum wage will deal a “death blow” to small business, despite studies showing that wage reform actually benefits the small business sector, which relies on customers who make adequate incomes. In any case, the increase is only a mild one. Even supporters of San Diego’s raise admit that it may be too little to lift the city’s least-paid workers out of poverty.

Enforcing wage hikes. In recent polls Californians have voiced overwhelming support for a higher minimum wage. The San Francisco and Oakland ballot measures should pass this fall, and prospects for victory in Los Angeles and San Diego are strong.

But all four proposals face challenges from wealthy conservatives with deep pockets, from Charles and David Koch to the Employment Policies Institute.

And these cities will still face the challenge of enforcing the new laws against stubborn (and sometimes criminal) employer resistance.

Nowhere is this challenge clearer than in San Francisco, where the city’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement strives to guarantee the established minimum wage of $10.74 per hour. San Francisco’s thriving underground economy is all but immune to regulation, and many of its workers are routinely defrauded of their wages. Undocumented immigrants, fearing deportation if they protest wage abuses, often refrain from reporting them. Charlotte Noss, co-chair of the city’s Wage Theft Task Force, stresses that such larceny is rampant. Walk down any street in Chinatown, she says, and “half the workers you pass have experienced wage theft in the past week.”

All of which suggests that enforcing minimum wage laws may be more exhausting than enacting them. As usual, holding employers to any laws favorable to working people may be the toughest task of all.

Dean Ferguson is an activist in San Francisco and can be reached at dean.ferguson@mail.com.


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