How We Can Raise the Minimum Wage in Berkeley, Oakland, or anywhere else. Now.

Here’s a great story about how we can make elections matter and how in the last three weeks we got quick and important victories on the road to raising the wages of working people in the East Bay.

Tonight I was at the second and final fall endorsement meeting of the Wellstone Democratic Club. This is a local Democratic Party club with a very progressive and activist membership. We try to model ourselves on the work of Paul and Sheila Wellstone, who really mastered the art of using electoral politics as an avenue for effective grassroots organizing.

You might not know this, but Democratic Party Club endorsement meetings can be really great, if you know how to use them well. Of course, they can also be an incredibly boring affair where nothing is said and nothing interesting happens. But, elections are the best time to really find out what candidates stand for. So in a club like the Wellstone Club, when candidates really wants the resources that a club endorsement can bring (mailings, volunteers, donations, phone bankers and precinct walkers, positive publicity, extensive networks of engaged citizens and voter, etc) they have to earn it. When they want a club endorsement, they really have to lay out what they think is important, how they think about the world and what are their core values. At least this can happen if your club members are educated about politics and organized enough to insist that candidates for public office actually say something meaningful.

The Wellstone Club is the consummate club of educated and active members with lots of very smart people who have been involved in progressive movement politics for decades. So, what actually happened?

Over the course of the Wellstone Club’s endorsement process we got to hear from candidates running for all of the contested city council seats in the cities of Berkeley and Oakland. We also got to hear from candidates running for Mayor of Berkeley.

At these meeting I asked every one of them if they would support an ordinance enacting an increase from $8 to $10 per hour in their city’s minimum wage for all workers– not just city employees or employees of people doing business with the city– but ALL workers.

To a one, EVERY candidate there said “yes!”, they would vote to raise the wage. Many said that $10 was not enough and some talked of enacting not just a minimum wage but a LIVING wage ordinance. Some talked passionately of a minimum of $16 per hour. They are now ALL on record as committed to raising Oakland’s or Berkeley’s minimum wage. Here’s who committed to this:

  • Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates and his opponents Jacquelyn McCormick and Berkeley City Council member Kriss Worthington
  • Berkeley City Council District 2 incumbent Darryl Moore and his principal opponent Denisha DeLane
  • Berkeley City Council District 3 incumbent Max Anderson
  • Berkeley City Council District 5 incumbent Laurie Capitelli and his opponent Sophie Hahn
  • Oakland District 1 candidates Dan Kalb, Richard Raya, Amy Lemley, and Gordon Link
  • Oakland District 3 candidates Sean Sullivan, Alex Miller-Cole, Nyeisha Dewitt, and Derrick Muhammad
  • Oakland District 5 candidates Noel Gallo and Mario Juarez
  • Oakland District 7 candidate Sheryl Walton
  • Oakland’s At-Large incumbent and candidate Rebecca Kaplan

What does this mean? Why is this important? Well, for starters it means that presently in the city of Berkeley there is now a council majority with the mayor’s vote who are publicly committed to raising the city’s minimum wage. (This includes Councilmember Jessie Arreguin who is not up for reelection but who was also at the meeting and who told me he supports such a measure.)  This could happen in Berkeley NOW, even before the November election.

In Oakland, if the candidates who came to our club meeting are elected for the seats they are running for, starting in January of 2013 the Oakland City Council will have a majority of members on record as agreeing to raise Oakland’s minimum wage.

Boom! Just like that we could lift tens of thousands of working families from the complete bottom of the heap by putting $4000 per year more into their pockets for the hard work they are already doing! Wow! Imagine giving workers a 25% increase in their wages just like that!

Okay. Is this really going to happen? It’s very possible. It will happen if we keep asking candidates questions like this and then following up with support and pressure. If we don’t like the answers we get, we find other candidates to run with better answers. And then, we work really hard to support our friends who are running for office. We keep them connected to the grassroots, making the grassroots citizen the most important power base they have. We also keep then connected to the grassroots in order to keep their hearts and minds grounded in the hopes and in the real lives of ordinary people. We help them remember why they were running to begin with.

Finally, an increase in the minimum wage can happen if we also use electoral campaigns to empower ordinary people to make a difference in the political outcomes that matter to them. If we really want to bring about dramatic progressive public policy, election campaigns must be centrally focused on organizing our base. This will do two things:

First, it will build our grassroots political power by training ordinary citizens in the arts of community organizing, of building a movement of engaged and thinking people.

Second, it will provide hope to the participants in this winning politics, a hope that will keep them engaged and connected with each other. Ordinary people will get to see that sometimes, if they work hard, if they use their resources well, and if they use the collective power of their communities– then sometimes democracy works.

If we make elections in Berkeley and Oakland– and everywhere else– be about organizing a grassroots base, we’ll have electoral victories that will have momentum and power as a movement. Such victories will mean far more than just electing a particular candidate or slate of candidates. With this kind of wind at their backs, once in office the candidates we elect to office will act with the bold confidence that will be needed to overcome the incredible power of the forces that would and will oppose an increase in the minimum wage or any other progressive policy that would shift wealth and power away from them and towards the rest of us.

We can make this happen very soon– not just in 5 or 10 years. We can do this NOW in Berkeley and Oakland, and in San Jose (where the people already have put a minimum wage initiative on the ballot for the November elections) or anywhere else we decide to get serious about organizing people for power.