The Equity Factor

Berkeley Minimum Wage Debacle Finds Some Last-Minute Unity

Ballot confusion amid local-level income equality push.

(AP Photo/Mark Lennihan)

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When residents of Berkeley, California, went to the polls Tuesday, they faced a rare scenario. On their ballots they found two different minimum wage increases that promised to lift the city’s base hourly rate up to $15 an hour by 2017 and 2019, respectively.

To make matters even more complicated, the very campaigns that put these initiatives on the ballot have been telling voters to vote “No” on both since August. That’s because there’s a third minimum wage initiative, backed by the Berkeley City Council, that the city signed into law after it was too late to remove these measures from the Nov. 8 ballot.

Paul Sonn, a researcher at the National Employment Law Project, which tracks minimum wage increases across the U.S., says the whole quagmire was “pretty unusual” because such measures generally appear in the form of a single proposal. It could be taken as a sign that labor, government and business in Berkeley failed to reach a point of cohesion in an efficient amount of time — or it could be seen that the proliferation of minimum wage hike laws at the local level is making the matter demand a more nuanced, time-consuming debate.

Tuesday saw the greatest number of minimum wage measures to appear during an election cycle in about a decade, and at the state level, Washington, Maine, Arizona and Colorado all passed statewide minimum wage increases. The Economic Policy Institute reports that as of October 2016, 30 municipalities have voted to raise their minimum wage above the state level — also like Berkeley.

But Siciliana Trevino, manager of the No on Measures CC and BB campaign in the California city, says that despite the mix-up, at the end of the day what rang true for all sides was the recognition that a move in this direction was inevitable. “Everyone agrees that we need to lift up our low-wage workers, however we feel that if it happens too fast it can jeopardize Berkeley’s vital and fragile nonprofits and small businesses who need time to adapt to the increases,” says Trevino.

The rest of Berkeley seems to share that opinion, as both CC and BB were two of three measures that failed to pass on Tuesday.

The city initiative seems to strike a middle ground between those business concerns and the demands of local labor, which guided much of Measures CC and BB. It will raise minimum wage to $15 an hour by October 1, 2018, and peg its annual increases to match inflation rates. It also gives workers up to 72 hours of paid sick leave, creates a wage program for youth getting job training from nonprofits, and adds in extra protection to make sure workers receive the full benefit of service charges, like tips.

In fact, on Tuesday’s ballot, beneath the Measure CC and BB issues, both the “Arguments FOR” and “Arguments AGAINST” column contained the same exact text.

“On August 31st, after considerable collaboration with a broad spectrum of stakeholders, the Berkeley City Council passed a minimum wage ordinance among the most progressive in the nation,” the text stated. “Supporters of both Measure BB and Measure CC came together to develop a consensus solution that will lift up Berkeley’s low-wage workers,” arguing that’s why they’ve abandoned their initial measures.

According to City Council Member Lori Droste, who speaks about the city ordinance in a campaign video, the City Council initiative will escalate wages in Berkeley at the second-fastest rate of any city in the country. It’ll surpass the state minimum wage law, which will raise wages to $15 an hour by January 1, 2022 and make California the first state in the nation to reach that rate. Compared with other California cities, Los Angeles has promised to hit $15 an hour by 2020, and San Francisco will, like Berkeley, get there by 2018.

But even though Berkeley’s new measure is one of the most progressive in the country, City Council Member Laurie Capitelli says the three-way divide that citizens came to find on their ballots yesterday morning was partly caused by vigorous discussion behind closed doors — and partly caused by voting law.

“They could never withdraw [Measure CC] because it was a citizen-initiated proposal, and that can’t be pulled off the ballot in California at the local level,” says Capitelli. “At the state level, they have the ability to do that.” Measure CC, which proposed a minimum wage increase to $15 an hour by 2017, was put in front of citizens earlier in the year in the form of a petition by local chapters of the Service Employees International Union, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, and the Associated Students of University of California.

Capitelli’s take, however, was that the $15 by 2017 was more of a negotiating tool that labor used to bring the city to the bargaining table.

“I think they decided they would force the council’s hand by putting this other measure on the ballot, which would be the most aggressive by any jurisdiction across the country,” says Capitelli. “We spent a great deal of time, probably five weeks, hammering out a compromise.”

Under current law, which the city signed back in 2014, Berkeley’s minimum wage escalated to $12.53 this year. Capitelli says there were no delays in that process; the relationship between city, business and labor has been tight up to the present, and the level of communication among the groups over the past two years makes him confident that hitting $15 by 2018 is more than feasible.

But that doesn’t mean those relationships haven’t taken a hit because of this debacle. “I think people are a little battled and bruised, and it’s going to take some time to heal,” he says. “We’re moving to about $13.75 next October, and then moving to $15 the following October, so we’ve got a little time to catch our breath and see how things go.”

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Johnny Magdaleno is a journalist, writer and photographer. His writing and photographs have been published by The Guardian, Al Jazeera, NPR, Newsweek, VICE News, the Huffington Post, the Christian Science Monitor and others. He was the 2016-2017 equitable cities fellow at Next City. 

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Tags: income inequalitycity hallminimum wageberkeley

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