The Minimum Wage Ordinance is Coming to Berkeley (News Analysis/Opinion)

Harry Brill
Wednesday June 11, 2014 - 10:53:00 AM

On Tuesday (June 10) the Berkeley City Council voted unanimously to enact Berkeley's first minimum wage law that covers the vast majority of employees who work in Berkeley. There is a much narrower living wage ordinance enacted in the year 2000, but it benefits a very small number of employees -- no more than 200 -- who work for businesses contracting with the City or that are located on Berkeley City property. The current measure, to become law, requires a second vote by the City Council members, which will be on June 24.

Here is what working people gain. On October 1 of this year, the minimum wage will be $10 an hour. It will rise on October 1, 2015 to $11 an hour, and will peak on October 1, 2016 at $12.53. It is an immensely important victory because it establishes the principle that the City of Berkeley, and not just the State or federal government, has a responsibility to improve the standard of living of working people. It will certainly put more bread on the table for the City's low wage workers and their families. But although we are delighted about our victory, we are also mindful that the minimum wage measure is short of what we wanted. After a year of hard work the City's Labor Commission, whose members are all appointed by the City Council, submitted a proposal that would include an annual cost of living increase along with an annual wage increase that would eventually exceed $15 an hour. Moreover, a higher minimum wage would apply to large firms, which could afford to pay more. None of these recommendations were accepted by the majority of Council members. 

Although wages for many who work in Berkeley will climb substantially, certain provisions have been included that the minimum wage activists are not happy about. The Council added a one year exemption for non-profits, no matter how large they are or how much their executives are paid. Also, young people who are being trained will not receive minimum wages. Although this sounds innocent enough, it is worrisome. The record shows that in many instances there is no training at all. Often there is little or no enforcement.  

Also, although one Council member expressed his disappointment that a sick leave provision is absent in the proposed ordinance, this issue was not taken up. The minimum wage initiative in Oakland, which voters will vote on in November, includes paid sick leave. It is essential not only for those who become ill. Co-workers don't want to be exposed, and people who are dining out in restaurants do not want food prepared and served by sick employees who are contagious. Not providing paid sick leave is a hole that has to be filled. 

So what is next? Mayor Bates has proposed after the second, confirming vote on the minimum wage issue that a task force be established to consider amendments to the ordinance that was just voted on. In fact, he mentioned that the issue of paid sick leave should be considered. Our regret, though, is that a new task force will bypass the highly progressive Labor Commission. 

Among the important gains in the struggle to win higher wages for low wage workers is that we have been successfully building a broad based political infrastructure that includes a wide array of organizations and many devoted and skilled organizers who will remain active for the coming months and years. And this infrastructure makes it possible to reach the large numbers of progressive individuals who live in Berkeley. Not least, the struggle for higher wages by persuading legislative bodies or by developing ballot initiatives has become a national movement. This has made it much more difficult for political officials to ignore the minimum wage issue. So we are optimistic not only because that is the politically correct attitude. Far more important, a power base is being built both locally and nationally that has compelled many political leaders to take us seriously. The victory in Berkeley is one of many examples that they are already beginning to do so.