Op-ed: In minimum wage debate, respect business owners

By Marian Lever

Marian Lever is a Berkeley resident.

In the growing conversation about minimum wage and establishing a fair balance for workers and businesses, it would be an unforgivable oversight to forget what makes Berkeley such a special place to live in. Small neighborhoods. Stores owned by individuals and families where people are recognized and greeted like members of those families.

Remembering the number of independent book stores that were thriving in Berkeley 10 years ago and then counting the brave survivors, is a tough marker of where we are headed as a town.

The communities that populated Cody’s and Black Oak Books were real communities in the truest sense of the word. Bookstores like Mrs. Dalloway’s on College Avenue survive on a wing and a prayer — and a lot of extraordinarily hard work and good citizenship by its owners and employees.

What Berkeley has worked so hard to maintain could be lost in a right-minded but perhaps too hasty proposal to change the minimum wage without giving true, independently owned businesses an honest role in the conversation and an opportunity to responsibly plan for any determined change.

Anyone who knows an independent store owner in Berkeley understands the razor-thin survival margins and how difficult it is to both support customers and employees and be a dedicated, upstanding member of the community.

Let’s not forget the complete equation of what Berkeley is trying to address and balance. Let’s not be any less respectful of the small business owners than we are of the employees. And let’s not be anything but civil in this entire discourse.

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  • guest

    Black Oak is alive on San Pablo ave. It seems wrong to use the past tense for it. It would be alive on Shattuck and Vine if it weren’t for the landlord, who has left that store front empty every since.

  • Jon D

    Support small businesses by shopping at them. Many already pay more than the proposed minimum wage.

  • guest

    This article about Cody’s illuminates the difficulties of running a bookstore. I am not sure the minimum wage is the main problem. http://www.businessweek.com/smallbiz/content/jan2009/sb20090112_080138.htm

    I like to think that now that Amazon has to pay sales tax, and Barnes and Noble and Borders have given up, maybe we can return to a sane world in which we pay enough for books to support local stores. I do not buy Amazon books. I get quicker service by calling Moes.

  • DisGuested

    The “Black Oak” I have visited on San Pablo bears almost no resemblance to the Shattuck operation in terms of the quality of its stock. I presumed someone just bought out the business name and the inventory was dispersed online.

  • Bryan Garcia

    I’ve only lived in Berkeley since 2008 (and visited frequently since 2006), but everything I’ve learned about the demise of Cody’s has pointed towards a variety of factors, many of which were their own fault, but none of them having to do with the minimum wage.

    And yes, as others have already pointed out, Black Oak is still alive and kicking on San Pablo.

  • guest

    I disagree. The current Black Oak remains an very good bookstore.

  • guest

    I Like Black Oak on San Pablo for

    1) Cook books 2) Childrens book 3) Christmas gifts 4) Used science books.

    You can read lots about the saga of its changing ownerhsip on the Berkeley Daily Planet. e.g. http://www.berkeleydailyplanet.com/issue/2009-06-04/article/33030?headline=Black-Oak-Books-Moves-Out–By-Riya-Bhattacharjee “At the time Cornell took over the (Shattuck) store, its lease was $16,000 per month.” The Shattuck store has been empty now for 4 years. That is like 700k in rent. The landlord probably could have dropped the rent in half and been ahead now, and we could still be reading books with greasy fingers from the cheese board pizza.

  • guest

    It is worth reading the article about Pegasus that was linked here on Berkeley side a few days ago http://marymackey.com/helping-independent-bookstores-survive-thrive/?utm_source=twitterfeed&utm_medium=facebook

  • curious

    How many small businesses in Berkeley pay their employees $8/hr?
    I really want to know.

  • fran haselsteiner

    We’ve heard again and again that small businesses cannot afford higher wages, but surely more facts could be offered, including whether low-wage workers in Berkeley are getting health insurance as a benefit from their employers. I like the surcharge in San Francisco that provides health insurance for employees and am surprised that that is not part of the minimum-wage discussion.

  • Sophie Hahn

    I agree wholeheartedly that small businesses need our support. They need our patronage, even when they charge more than chains, they need lower rents, they need some tax breaks, and maybe some other types of subsidies. They need loans to tide them over when they have business disruptions such as construction and displacement from development, or simply to allow them to grow or ride out economic ups and downs.

    But, low wages are nothing other than a subsidy to businesses and organizations – small and large, for profit and not for profit – given by those least able to subsidize – the working poor. Why should people be asked to work their full capacity – 8 or maybe 10 hours a day and often more if someone works more than one job – and still not earn enough to support even themselves, let alone a family? There has to be a better way.

    I would like to see our local businesses band together and ask the City and community for the support they need. And I would like to see our elected officials and City Staff reach out and invite and facilitate those discussions, and translate whatever needs are identified into policies and, if warranted, subsidies, tax breaks, etc. As a community, we need to affirm our commitment to a City of character, and support our locally owned businesses in creative and meaningful ways. That should come from our individual (consumer) and/or collective pocketbooks, not from the pockets of the poor.

    Finally, I think it’s a dangerous paradigm to pit small business against workers. They are both victims of the same systems that put downward pressure on wages and seek to take over every inch of business in every community. Corporations and chains get away with paying ridiculously low wages and benefit from huge economies of scale. They are also able to engage in predatory business practices such as under-pricing all local competitors – for as long as it takes to squeeze them out of business – and then raising their prices – often to above what the community was paying before – when they are the last business standing and effective monopolies.

    Think about it. A Big Box or Chain can afford to operate numerous outlets at loss for a long time, because they have such great profits elsewhere. A local business, by contrast, can’t ride out more than one lean business cycle without going under. Chains know that and it’s a tried and true strategy to exploit this relative weakness. These are the very real pressures our locally owned businesses face in a poorly regulated market. And of course, the chains pay such low wages that the competitive pressures make low wages almost an imperative. That’s exactly why we need to raise the minimum wage across the board . . . so that all players in the local economy, whether locally owned or large corporate chains, are required to pay more, and the good actors who chose to pay better than minimum wage are not penalized.

    I highly recommend reading Big Box Swindle, by Tracy Mitchell. http://bigboxswindle.com. Workers and Small/Local Business owners should unite with the community to come up with win-win solutions that provide dignity and sustainability for all. Don’t let them divide and conquer by pitting rightful allies against each other. Let’s support local workers – with an increased minimum wage – and local businesses – with our collective community resources. The sooner the better.

  • Robert Eliason

    The use of Cody’s and Black Oak here is a little disingenuous. I notice that you do not use MY employer, Moe’s Books, in your
    argument. Moe’s has consistently paid much better than minimum wage and
    we are still around. The failure of Cody’s had more to do with the expansion into San Francisco and a refusal to recognize on-line resources as a vital revenue stream. Cody’s was unionized years before the store collapsed and paid better than minimum wage. My understanding is that Black Oak’s problems stemmed primarily from a very large tax debt due to incorrectly granting some employees independent contractor status. Regardless, their employees earned better than minimum wage as well. These stores were hurt by decisions made by management, not by the wage structure.

  • Chris J

    It seems to me that minimum wage raises haven’t been fairly addressed for a generation now. So many factors relate to a business success, from business decisions by management or owners to the cost of rent to the cost of wages.

    Big businesses, small businesses, all have ridden to their success or failure on the backs of wage rates that are a generation out of sync with current times.

  • guest

    We need to keep in mind all the other parties who are employers other than big business. Small businesses are one. Another is household employers. Disabled and sick people may have difficulty paying the new wages. Parents with nannies are another. Remember many nannies actually earn 20+ an hour because they do shares, working for more than one family at a time and yet each family is a separate employer who will be bound by the minimums Berkeley comes up with. $10 is not too unreasonable but anything above that is really pushing the limits of what parents can afford and will force many more to pay off the books which will be bad for tax revenue and bad for the nannies who won’t receive unemployment, social security and other benefits of earning a wage on the books.

  • Residents against reality

    Also all the hypocritcal liberal do gooders who try and impose one set of rules on every productive person in society but eagerly pursue their own enlightened self interests by hiring unlicensed contractors, buying 100% of their consumer goods from brands that manufacture overseas where none of these rules apply and giving amazon a hall pass for undercutting all brick and mortar retailers. They share some responsibility too.

    Actually, the more I ponder this, the more I realize it’s you, citizens of Berkeley, ca, USA who are to blame for this stuff. Not that wages really matter anyway.


  • guest

    I do all my shopping in El Cerrito or Emeryville and on the internet so an increase in the minimum wage in Berkeley won’t have an impact on my wallet. Let’s do it!

  • Lovely Things

    I agree wholeheartedly that small businesses need our support. They
    need our patronage, even when they charge more than chains, they need
    lower rents, they need some tax breaks, and maybe some other types of
    subsidies. They need loans to tide them over when they have business
    disruptions such as construction and displacement from development, or
    simply to allow them to grow or ride out economic ups and downs.

    Who do you believe should be made to pay for all those lovely things?

  • Residents against reality

    Lots of nice ideas here. Unfortunately, as we apparently have to keep learning the hard way, over and over and over, government policies do pretty much exactly the opposite of what they intend to.

    War on drugs
    War on poverty
    War on cancer
    War on obesity
    Affordable healthcare
    Affordable education

    Crapitalism not capitalism is to blame for the big box issue – remove government from the equation and we can get back to free markets, which is the only way to raise living standards.

  • residents for reality

    According to your theory, living standards should have stagnated during the 1950s and 1960s and should have risen after Reagan cut back on regulations in the 1980s.

    In reality, living standards rose across the board during the 1950s and 1960s. Since the 1980s, living standards have risen for the very rich and stagnated for the majority of Americans.

    This dose of reality may cure your mystical faith in the free market.

  • Chris J

    I appreciate the notion of having Internet companies start to bear the same burdens as b&m stores–with sales taxes applied. The argument that the Internet businesses need an opportunity to thrive is no longer applicable. Free ride should be over. And yeah, I had an Internet business for several years that had no sales tax applied.

  • Virginia W.

    Those of us who appreciate the special qualities local businesses have– not the working poor. Ms. Hahn’s points are excellent. On the other hand I’m re-thinking my patronage of a local bookstore which seems to be opposing the minimum wage ordinance.

  • EastBayer

    The notion that it’s minimum wage laws that have made it difficult for brick-and-mortar print media stores to thrive in the age of the internet is, uh, interesting…

  • Lovely Things

    So are you planning on offering these businesses lower rents, tax breaks, subsidies, loans? Do you have that authority? Or where do you believe they should come from?

  • Do tell!

    >Since the 1980s, living standards have risen for the very rich and stagnated for the majority of Americans.

    Really? Truly? So everyone had iPhones and giant flatscreen TVs and computers and home internet in the 1980s?

  • residents for reality

    I am afraid that reality is more complicated than that. You have to look at all of a household’s typical purchases and compare that with household income.

    Some things have become cheaper, like electronics. Some have become more expensive, like college education. On the balance, income of the middle class has stagnated and almost all the income gains have gone to the very rich since 1980.

    I would advise you to look up the statistics, rather than breathlessly making a point that shows you have never seen the statistics.

  • Residents against reality

    Yes, let’s take a look at college tuition. Not exactly a free market by any stretch. Government guaranteed student loans insures that institutions never have to compete on price, so administrations continue to get more and more bloated. Take a good look around you, which other items hav gotten more expensive? Do you see any correlation with government involvement in those markets? Compared to those where things have gotten cheaper?

    Despite the wealth gap, living standards have never been higher. Even the poorest among us enjoy dishwashers, cars, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, and in my experience size of television is inversely correlated to net worth.

  • residents for reality

    This is the sort of comment you get in a society where large-screen TVs are cheap and education is expensive – mindless repetition of a meme from Fox news.

    It is a common conservative claim that has been debunked many times by those who actually look at the cost of all the products that a typical household buys. The conservatives only mention the products that have gotten cheaper and more common, such as dishwashers and televisions, and they ignore those that have gotten more expensive. People have large screen TVs and very large debts for student loans – if they can afford to go to college at all.

    In the 1950s and the 1960s, it was possible to get a college education at a cost of $100 per semester or less at many state schools – including UC. Why? Because that dreaded creature, government, believed in providing opportunity for everyone and subsidized college education very heavily.

    If you think the free market is always efficient, then maybe you can tell me why the financial system crashed a few years ago – and was only saved by massive government bailouts. Hint: there were no financial crises in the 1950s and 1960s, when banks were heavily regulated. There have been regular financial crises since the 1980s, when Reagan and republicans deregulated the banks.

    That is one part of reality that you don’t hear about when you get your ideas from a large-screen TV playing Fox news.

  • Sorry uc you’re toast

    So, no, you don’t see the correlation? Don’t want to see it?

    I think the banks should have gone out of business and I think they were allowed to get where they got because of government. The FDIC guarantees your deposits. If they did not do that, you, a market participant, would do some due diligence about who held your money. But, because the nanny state has done that due diligence for you, there aren’t really market forces at work insuring that banks lend money prudently. I won’t go into it but do a quick google search on Barney frank and Barack Obama speeches about bringing down lending standards. Hint – they shoulder as much blame for subprime debacle as any banker does.

    Here is the good news. The “higher education” system as we know it is a dinosaur. My kids who are now in their single digits will get free college education. Information is all free now. The only thing lacking is the accreditation that gives knowledge credibility in the “real world”. That’s the easy part. Accreditation will be independently tested at the individual level, and the institutions will evaporate