Public Comment

The minimum wage victory -- a path to better times

Harry Brill
Friday September 02, 2016 - 10:07:00 AM

The Berkeley City Council just unanimously enacted a minimum wage ordinance of $15 an hour beginning in October of 2018. Often reported in the media are complaints by small business owners that raising the minimum wage would be disastrous for their business. If the media included interviews with the heads of families working for poverty wages, the complaints would be far more disturbing. The narratives about their difficult lives, as well as the problems poverty causes their spouses and children, is cause to shudder. FDR, who recognized the adverse consequences of poverty wages commented "No Business which depends for existence on paying less than living wages to its workers has any right to continue in this country". This moral principle applies today as well.

But although higher wages may mean lower profits, very few if any establishments will be forced out of business. In fact, the business community as a whole will benefit because higher wages means more purchasing power. Yes, it is simple as that! Consumers make up about 70 percent of our gross national product. The vast majority of consumers are working people. The dismal shape of our economy is due in part to their declining purchasing power. That MUST change to save the economy, which in turn will save jobs AND businesses. 

The proposed minimum wage law was drafted by a committee that included business as well as labor representatives. In fact, the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce was involved in the recent round of discussions and signed off on the agreement. Since the Chamber represents business interests, it never would have conceded if it believed that their members would experience a significant increase in bankruptcies. 

Although there is good reason to take pride in winning the minimum wage battle along with paid sick leave, $15 an hour is nevertheless still a poverty wage. Councilman Jesse Arreguin got lots of applause when he said at the Council meeting that we have to continue this struggle until we get a living wage ordinance. The two other progressive councilmen, Kriss Worthington and Max Anderson, and the activist community as well certainly agree. 

The Minimum Wage Law that was enacted two years ago by the Berkeley City Council peaks on the first of October to $12.53 cents an hour. That law lacks an adjustment for inflation. The new ordinance provides for an annual inflation adjustment beginning in 2019, which is one year after the $15 an hour wage takes effect. Also, the earlier law has no sick leave provision. In businesses with fewer than 25 employees, the current law provides 48 hours of sick leave, which is for a full time workers 6 days. For workers employed in a firm that employs at least 25 workers, an employee can accumulate up to 72 hours of sick leave, which is equivalent to nine days for a full time employee. The sick leave provision includes taking care of a family member who is ill. 

Please keep in mind that paid sick leave not only protects working people and their families. It is a public health issue as well. By discouraging sick workers from coming to work, customers at restaurants and other venues avoid being exposed to employees with contagious illnesses. Not least, co-workers are also protected. 

Significantly, the $15 minimum wage was adopted even though some on the City Council tends to be conservative on economic issues. Clearly, political pressure does work. Undoubtedly, the elections in November have given an advantage to the activists, who have been involved in this issue for a long while. Very fortunately, one thing these activists have in common; they are all long distant runners.