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Close to Home: Why $15 now in California?

Gov. Jerry Brown recently signed legislation boosting California's minimum wage from $10 per hour to $15 — a 50 percent increase, which will affect more than one-third of the workforce, making the state's minimum the highest in the nation. This minimum wage hike will be phased in over six years, then automatically adjusted annually to offset rising costs of living.

Immediately after California, New York adopted a $15 minimum wage, followed by the District of Columbia. The Connecticut, Massachusetts and New Jersey legislatures are now considering similar minimum wage increases.

However, a political puzzle needs examination. Last year, the governor and the Legislature's Democratic leadership opposed a $13-an-hour minimum wage bill that was introduced by state Sen. Mark Leno.

Why a $15 minimum a year later? To answer that question we must analyze the grass-roots movement to raise the wage floor that began in the mid-1990s.

Declining wages is one of the main causes for a generation of widening inequality that has emerged in California over the last three decades. The UC Berkeley Labor Center reports that between 1979 and 2014, wages for the upper 10 percent of California workers soared by 35 percent (adjusted for inflation), while wages for the bottom 60 percent fell. Wages for the lowest paid workers dropped by 6 percent.

Moreover, after the Great Recession officially ended in 2010, 44 percent of new jobs created were low-wage, paying less than $14 an hour. The number of California workers earning such low wages increased from 26 percent in 2006 to 33 percent in 2014.

Neither the state nor federal governments have acted to reverse declining wages, particularly to address the falling value of a minimum wage that is not annually adjusted for inflation. If the California minimum wage were annually adjusted since its peak value in the late 60s, it would be nearly $12 an hour today.

Consequently, a movement began when Baltimore implemented the first living-wage ordinance in 1996, requiring that city workers and city contractors' employees receive a wage commensurate with the cost of living.

Los Angeles enacted California's first living-wage law in 1997, and 34 California cities and counties have followed suit, including Sebastopol, Sonoma and Petaluma. These cities require that covered workers receive at least $15 an hour.

Last year, Sonoma County enacted a $15-an-hour living wage after a broad community coalition's two-year campaign had gathered several thousand signatures, brought hundreds to board meetings and organized dozens of community leaders, clergy and low-wage workers to lobby board members.

Second, in 2011, the low-wage recovery and the concentration of wealth and political power in the upper 1 percent ignited the Occupy Wall Street movement. Encampments spread to more than 600 communities across the nation, including Santa Rosa. Protesters pitched tents for several months in front of Santa Rosa's City Council chambers and organized to halt homeowner evictions.

Third, beginning in 2012, one-day strikes and mass demonstrations by fast food, Wal-Mart, home care, adjunct professors and other low-wage workers demanded $15 an hour. Locally, unionized Sonoma County home care workers helped lead the living-wage campaigns, won widespread support and negotiated a substantial raise from $11.65 and hour to $13 an hour.

As public support for '$15 Now' continued to grow, in 2013 Seattle approved the first $15-an-hour citywide minimum wage law, covering all minimum wage workers, followed by San Francisco in 2014 and Los Angeles in 2015. More than 30 cities nationwide have implemented citywide minimum wage laws varying from $13 to $15 an hour, of which 15 are in California.

Finally, Sen. Bernie Sanders won 23 Democratic primaries and caucuses by focusing on major reforms to address economic inequality. Sanders introduced legislation to increase the federal minimum wage from $7.25 an hour to $15, and he championed this issue throughout his campaign.

The Democratic Party platform already includes a $15 federal minimum, and Sanders' supporters will push hard to ensure it stays in.

Proponents for raising the minimum wage had collected signatures to place a $15 minimum wage initiative on the November ballot, one that the voters would undoubtedly approve. A recent Field Poll indicated that nearly 70 percent of registered voters support incrementally raising the state minimum wage to that level. The governor and Democratic leaders understood this political reality and wisely approved the legislation. However, it was the grass-roots movement to raise the wage floor that influenced public opinion and pressured the governor and Legislature to act.

Martin J. Bennett is instructor emeritus of American history at Santa Rosa Junior College and co-chairman of North Bay Jobs with Justice.

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