As a library worker in Berkeley and a member of SEIU 1021, the union representing nearly 1,000 city of Berkeley employees, I know how important a living wage is to workers. Far too many in our community make too little to live in the place they work resulting in long commutes and disconnection from those we serve. The increase in the cost of housing has vastly outpaced wage growth, and it is forcing our families and communities apart. This problem touches every part of our society, including our elected representatives.
Over 20 years ago, in 1998, the salary for a Berkeley City Council member was set at $21,600 and has risen less than 3% per year to a mere $38,695 since. Meanwhile, Berkeley’s median home cost has risen 164% in that same time. Even in rent-controlled units the average rent has more or less tripled between 1998 and 2019 according to rent board data. The result: our elected leaders are paid a wage that was low to begin with and that is now completely unsustainable to live on in Berkeley. November’s Measure JJ offers a solution by adjusting the council and mayor salaries to a modest but livable level.
Why should that matter to you? It matters because having such a low salary for our council members and mayor means we have severely restricted who can feasibly serve in public office. I know from personal experience that there are many people who would make passionate, qualified, smart and caring representatives. They are people who want to serve their community and have considered running for city council but can’t justify taking such a large pay cut when they have to provide for their family.
Paying a poverty wage for public service means we have had and will continue to have, fewer black and brown representatives, fewer indigenous and immigrant representatives, fewer working-class representatives, and fewer representatives that truly understand the struggles of our community. With the current wage structure, serving on the council is effectively limited to those with personal wealth or a spouse or family member who can provide for the household. How does a working-class single mother who knows change is needed in her community put her name forward when she knows it will mean sacrifices for her kids? These aren’t the kinds of choices that we should be forcing people to make.
And even when working-class people come forward and when we do elect them as representatives, they face obstacles in office and have to make choices that their colleagues simply aren’t faced with. If a representative has to work a second job to afford their rent, they will necessarily have less time and attention for constituency services, legislation, and preparation for meetings. Being a representative is an important job and the people we elect to do it should be able to do it with their full mind and attention. In short: one job should be enough.
Luckily, we have a chance to fix the problem at the ballot this year. Measure JJ would increase council and mayor salaries to a modest but livable level, and enable people from a broad variety of backgrounds to serve our community. The value of this diversity will far outweigh the total cost of $277,000 per year, an amount that is less than what the City Manager alone made in 2019.
The working families of Berkeley deserve to have working people, with lived experiences like theirs, representing them on the council. Vote Yes on Measure JJ.