By Roxana Tynan
On Sunday the Los Angeles Times published a story about the important successes of campaigns to pass local minimum wage and living wage laws. However, while highlighting new developments that will impact local economies and the lives of workers, the Times missed the real story and forces behind this growing trend.
The piece focused on two ballot-box victories for living wage laws: a minimum wage for hotel workers in Long Beach and a citywide minimum wage increase in San Jose.
“The victories put these two California cities on the cusp of an emerging trend,” wrote Wesley Lowery. “Ballot initiatives, labor experts say, have the potential to rewrite labor’s playbook for how to win concessions from management.” Throughout the piece, Lowery presented the minimum wage ballot measures as a tactic put in place and managed from behind the scenes by labor leaders.
In fact, both measures were conceived and carried to victory by broad coalitions of people and organizations interested in improving their cities – together with key labor partners who see their role as improving the lot of all workers’ lives. The San Jose measure germinated in a San Jose State University class, whose students – none of them yet labor leaders to my knowledge – studied the concept in 2010 and presented what was to be taken up by a citywide movement. Groups such as the United Way of Silicon Valley, the NAACP of San Jose and the Jewish Federation of Silicon Valley probably didn’t see themselves as puppets dancing on the strings of labor leaders; they no doubt saw themselves as partners with union members and leading organizations, such as Working Partnerships USA, in pursuing shared missions to mitigate poverty, address inequality and improve the lives of working people.
As with Long Beach, the labor movement was not “behind the scenes” but out front in partnership with community allies with a vision about how to improve our economy.
Dozens of small businesses jumped on board to support the Long Beach minimum wage for hotel workers. They recognized that higher pay for low-wage workers would immediately translate into more money spent locally – a natural stimulus for an economy struggling to leave the recession behind.
Long Beach residents felt that large hotels owed something to the community, since their success was supported in part by millions of dollars in taxpayer investment and development subsidies. In Long Beach, as in San Jose, students also played an important role. Students from Long Beach State University and local colleges and high schools bucked their generation’s reputation for political apathy, joined the movement and took leadership in shaping their communities.
Far beyond seeking “concessions from management,” supporters and voters saw these measures as concrete ways that voters could use to address economic problems and set their cities on a better course. At least as important as the narrative of these measures as a growing tactic is the story of the overwhelming support they found with the general public. The San Jose measure, which raised the minimum wage from California’s $8 to $10 per hour, passed with 58 percent of the vote, despite the opposition outspending supporters two to one. The Long Beach measure, setting a minimum wage of $13 per hour for workers in large hotels, passed with more than 64 percent of the vote.
These totals represent massive public support – it should be noted that every ballot measure starts with an uphill climb to pass it, as voters’ default vote is usually “No.” The biggest takeaway from Long Beach and San Jose should be that voters – residents, students and business owners – don’t find the status quo acceptable. Long Beach and San Jose voters, like all of us, live in an economy marked by extreme inequality and wages that don’t keep up with living costs, despite record profits for employers. When given an option of making concrete change — and shown the way forward by an energetic and diverse coalition – voters will embrace it.