Close to Home: Why environmentalists support living wage ordinance

A coalition of labor, faith, environmental and community organizations has unveiled a proposed living wage ordinance for Sonoma County.

The proposed legislation requires that the county, county contractors and firms receiving public subsidies pay their employees $15 an hour. The Sierra Club Sonoma Chapter and Sonoma County Conservation Action support this campaign.

A living wage is the right thing to do. No one who works for a living should earn poverty wages. Yet 28 percent of Sonoma County residents are the working poor and cannot make ends meet.

Local government should be a model employer. Also, a living wage is good for business because it puts money in the hands of consumers. Politicians of all stripes now acknowledge that the recent dramatic increase in income inequality is not economically sustainable.

Equally important, the Sierra Club and Sonoma County Conservation Action believe that paying a living wage is good for the environment.


• As of 2013, Sonoma County was the 11th least-affordable housing market in the nation, based upon the ratio of median home prices to median family income and other indicators. Rents have skyrocketed by 30 percent over the past three years. In the city of Santa Rosa, for nearly half of all households, the rent or mortgage is not affordable — these households pay more than 30 percent of their gross monthly income for housing costs.

• Unaffordable housing is a climate change problem. When housing is not affordable, growing numbers of low-wage workers must commute longer distances by car from more affordable markets — contributing to increased greenhouse gas emissions. If workers earn a living wage, it's more likely they can afford housing near where they work. This means less commuting and diminished greenhouse gas emissions.

• A living wage law can help to ensure high-quality park and recreation services and effective enforcement of environmental and planning regulations. Poverty wages do not support quality public services.

• The proposed living wage law includes a 'responsible bidder' provision, which requires that all companies with county contracts demonstrate a record of compliance with state and federal labor, health and safety and environmental laws. This will ensure that county contractors uphold the highest standards of compliance with environmental regulations.

• Environmentalists need a mass citizens' movement to protect the environment, and an active, engaged and educated citizenry is essential to this goal. But an increasing number of low-wage workers must work two jobs to make ends meet. The lack of a living wage means these workers and their families have little time to participate in civic affairs or community organizations.

• To get climate solutions off the ground, environmentalists must build the broadest possible alliance. Labor can be our ally in addressing the climate crisis. The transition to clean energy will be a powerful job creator, and we agree those jobs should be good living wage jobs.

• 'Green Growth,' a new report by economists at the University of Massachusetts, shows the way to good green jobs. The United States can slash greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 2005 levels and create 2.7 million good new jobs in the clean energy sector by investing $200 billion annually over the next two decades in energy efficiency and renewable energy such as wind, solar, geothermal and small-scale hydro.

A living wage is good for workers and good for the environment.

Dan Kerbein is a freelance writer/social media professional and member of the executive committee of the Sierra Club Sonoma Group. Janis Watkins is an attorney and board member of Sonoma County Conservation Action.

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