How A Labor Coalition Plans To Bring Paid Sick Leave And A Higher Minimum Wage To The Bay Area

SEIU Local 1021 regional vice president Gary Jimenez CREDIT: SEIU USSW’S YOUTUBE ACCOUNT
SEIU Local 1021 regional vice president Gary Jimenez CREDIT: SEIU USSW’S YOUTUBE ACCOUNT

This November, voters in Oakland, CA will have the opportunity to establish a minimum wage of $12.25 and ensure paid sick days for employees. In nearby San Francisco, voters will weigh in on a measure that would raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2016. And, a coalition of labor and community groups are working actively to ensure, voters in neighboring communities like Berkeley, Concord, and Richmond will have similar opportunities by 2016.

Last month, Service Employees International Union-United Healthcare Workers West (SEIU-UHW)’s president proposed that the labor movement launch an audacious national effort to place living wage measures on the ballot in the 24 states with ballot initiative processes. SEIU-UHW had successfully pushed the state hospital trade association into reaching an agreement on a joint project by using the threat of a ballot initiative to limit hospital charges and salaries and he hoped to take the strategy national. As he was launching the “Live Better Together” proposal, another SEIU local was already hard at work — with coalitions of other labor organizations, workers centers, and community groups on a plan to put minimum wage laws on the ballot in jurisdictions across the Bay Area.

SEIU Local 1021 regional vice president Gary Jimenez, who is heading up the Oakland coalition of labor unions locals and other labor organizations, told ThinkProgress that these efforts are about boosting the floor for workers throughout the San Francisco Bay: “Corporations are making billions in record profits, yet workers are as bad off as, if not worse off, than before the economic downturn. It’s time to level the playing field. We are excited.”

It’s time to level the playing field. We are excited.

Like the hospital workers, Service Employees International Union Local 1021 may have helped maneuver the San Francisco government and business community into accepting a minimum wage increase. In April, it proposed a ballot referendum to raise the city of San Francisco’s minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2016. The San Francisco Chamber of Commerce denounced the proposal, saying it was “outraged by the preemptive minimum wage ballot measure,” and “a thinly veiled attempt to influence the outcome of the consensus-building process” being convened by San Francisco Mayor Ed Lee (D).

But when Lee, SEIU 1021, and the other groups in the Coalition for a Fair Economy jointly announced that compromise last month, a representative from the Chamber was even on hand for the announcement. Their “consensus measure,” which will allow voters to raise the minimum to that $15 level by 2018, will now be the one on the ballot in November. While a Chamber’s board will not take a formal position on the proposal until the end of the month, its public policy committee co-chair applauded the Mayor for “considering the impact to businesses — large and small — as he led this effort to bring people together to send one strong measure to the voters this November.”

Jimenez explained that the SEIU 1021 proposal “helped pave the way for groups to come together.” “From our perspective,” he said, “we felt it was important to put all the pressure we could to make it the most progressive measure we could in San Francisco. Had that not come together, we were prepared.”

Jim Lazarus, the San Francisco Chamber’s senior vice president of public policy, told ThinkProgress that the SEIU’s gambit helped make the consensus measure more labor-friendly. “There’s no doubt that their political strategy of threatening a ballot measure had a big impact on the outcome of the mayor’s discussions and the drafting of that measure,” he explained. “If it had come through the normal process, we might have been able to moderate the ramp up and have something everyone could support, which was our hope.” Still, while he said the Chamber has concerns that this version could raise wages too quickly, especially for tipped workers and new employees, he predicted that “it’s probably something the business community will not organize to attempt to defeat.”

Lazarus predicts that the measure is likely to pass easily this November: increasing the minimum wage “passed with 60 percent in 2003, it’ll do at least that well this time,” he said, “I don’t expect a lot of opposition from the business community, I just don’t expect a lot of support.”

There’s no doubt that their political strategy of threatening a ballot measure had a big impact

In Oakland, Local 1021 joined with SEIU’s United Long Term Care Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 5, UNITE HERE 2850, and other worker-rights community organizations to form Lift Up Oakland for Better Wages, Healthy Families and a Healthy Economy. Together, they collected more than 33,000 signatures and put a $12.25 minimum wage on the ballot. Their proposal would also require five or nine paid sick days (depending on business size), protect hospitality workers from wage theft, and tie the minimum wage to the consumer price index (CPI).

The Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce is attempting to prevent this from passing, offering its own countermeasure to stagger an increase over three years and reduce the amount of sick-leave for employees at small businesses — but since the time for ballot petitions for this November has passed, its only route to the this year’s general election ballot would require action by the city council.

“The alternative is inferior to the Lift Up Oakland measure, as any kind of real increase wouldn’t be seen until five-years out,” Jimenez argued. “They call it ‘$13 in 3’, but that’s disingenuous, [as many workers] wouldn’t see anything close to the $12.25 we’re proposing until five years [from now] and they haven’t tied it to CPI. We figured that that’s the is most progressive thing we could do. Gas rises, housing costs rise, so should people’s wages.” He believes these values are “not something the people want to compromise on,” and noted that a recent poll by the Chamber found about 70 percent support for the $12.25 minimum.

The Oakland Metropolitan Chambers of Commerce did not immediately respond to a ThinkProgress request for comment.

Gas rises, housing costs rise, so should people’s wages

Similar efforts are underway in other area jurisdictions. Jimenez noted that different coalitions are already working in Berkeley, Concord, Richmond, Sonoma, and Sunnyvale to bring minimum wage initiatives to voters by 2016: “We’re looking at this as a regional referendum… This stuff is popping up like popcorn. People are feeling the heat of low wages and higher expenses and it’s coming up organically… popping up here, popping up there.” After seeing the successful efforts in Seattle, he said, people are saying “we could do that here.”

A recent analysis of Lift Up Oakland’s proposal by economists from the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment at University of California, Berkeley and policy experts from the Institute for Women’s Policy Research found that up to 48,000 workers (about 30 percent of workers in Oakland), would benefit from the $12.25 minimum wage, including a significant number of workers of color.

California Gov. Jerry Brown (D) signed a law last September that will raise the statewide minimum hourly wage to $10 by 2016. A proposal to increase that to $13 by 2017, filed by State Senator Mark Leno (D) in February, cleared the Senate but did not pass the Assembly.