Opinion: Celebrate $15 minimum wage for Berkeley workers

Today Berkeley ushers in a $15/hour minimum wage. How we got here is a good reminder of how we can work together on important issues instead of attacking each other on ideologies.

On Oct. 1, 2018 Berkeley workers started earning $15 an hour. Berkeley is only one of about 21 cities across the nation that have adopted $15 minimum wages. In August of 2016, Berkeley unanimously passed the second fastest minimum wage in the nation. This was after a couple of years of negotiations between elected officials, activists, labor leaders, and business owners in Berkeley. It was a great achievement and a good lesson in coalition building after many years of hard work.

So, how did we get here? In May of 2014, labor leaders pushed for a minimum wage in Berkeley around the same time Oakland was voting on a ballot measure to increase its minimum wage. In early 2014, Berkeley decided to raise its minimum wage from $10 to $12.53 over the course of two years. This wage schedule was progressive for our region but in retrospect should have had an indexing measure that eventually reached $15.

In 2015, the Labor Commission, under the chairmanship of Cal student Angus Teter, forwarded a proposal for a $19 dollar minimum wage for Council consideration. While Council heard some compelling testimony that lasted into the late hours of the night, Council did not decide to not take action that night on the proposal or amendments since we still had time to sit down with a variety of stakeholders and determine what would be the best approach for our community, as 2015 wages were unaffected by any proposal. Also, due to the lateness of the evening, councilmembers also were unable to ask staff any in-depth questions about the proposal; needless to say, making momentous decisions at a late hour is not the best way to approach policy.

As a result of extensive collaboration, Council passed a $15 minimum wage schedule a couple of months later that would have raised our minimum wage to $15 by 2018, with a two year extension for small businesses. At that time, it was the second most progressive minimum wage schedule in Alameda County (after Emeryville, the fastest in the nation).

Around the same time, activists circulated a petition to place a minimum wage measure on the ballot. (Measure CC) This measure would have raised the minimum wage to $15 by 2017 and then indexed it by CPI (~2.5%) plus 3% (~5.5%). This wage schedule would have been roughly $5 faster than the $15 state minimum wage schedule passed into law.

Given the passionate feelings around the ballot initiative and challenges around implementing a split tier wage schedule, we decided to pass another $15 minimum wage schedule in April of 2016 (Measure BB). This schedule raised the minimum wage to $15/hour by 2019. We consulted with economist Michael Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts in minimum wages who has helped cities determine how to implement $15 minimum wages. Professor Reich endorsed the Council proposal and Council decided to let voters decide on which minimum wage proposal suited their needs best. The majority of Councilmembers did not oppose the citizens’ initiative measure; rather we simply supported the measure we worked so hard on. The Council proposal (Measure BB) for $15 by 2019, after all, was the third fastest wage schedule in the nation.

Nevertheless, we felt that it was necessary to work together to unite the community around a common minimum wage. As a result, former Councilmember Laurie Capitelli entered negotiations with labor leaders and small business owners within the City of Berkeley. Policy making is challenging, especially when there are impassioned advocates on both sides of the issue, but it’s better when we can all work together to do so. After weeks of negotiating, he was able to hammer out a deal which led to a $15 minimum wage for all workers in Berkeley. It was a long saga but one that was worth it. It is a good reminder of how we all can work together on very important issues instead of attacking each other on ideological purity.

For that, we are proud to be Berkeleyans.

Tom Bates is the former mayor of Berkeley; Linda Maio, Susan Wengraf and Lori Droste are current Berkeley council members; and Laurie Capitelli and Darryl Moore are former Berkeley council members.