With proposals to raise the federal minimum wage languishing in Congress, cities are increasingly taking matters into their own hands and leapfrogging ahead of the current national rate of $7.25. On May 19, Los Angeles became the largest city in the country to approve a $15 hourly minimum wage—one of several California cities including San Francisco, Oakland and San Diego which have recently passed substantial wage hikes. Seattle, Washington, set the precedent in June 2014, pledging to raise its minimum to $15 over the next two to seven years, depending on the size of the company.
Most of the increases will be implemented gradually over several years. LA’s minimum wage, for example, will reach $15 by 2020. But earlier this month, one small California city decided that its low-wage workers shouldn’t have to wait that long for a living wage. This summer, Emeryville will set a new national precedent when its minimum wage surges to nearly double the federal rate.
“Let’s Give Emeryville and Workers a Raise”
“This is an issue that evokes strong emotions,” said Emeryville Mayor Ruth Atkin before the start of the public comment session for the city council ordinance that would raise the minimum wage to $14.44 per hour by July 1—making Emeryville’s rate the highest of any city in the nation. (The small Seattle suburb of Seatac also passed a $15 minimum wage, but not all workers in the city are covered under it.)
The mayor—an ardent supporter of the living wage campaign in Emeryville and the national Fight for $15—instructed attendees of the May 5 city council meeting to hold their applause and boos until everyone had talked. As dozens of low-wage workers, union representatives, faith leaders and community members addressed city government officials on the moral, social and economic significance of passing the living wage ordinance, seated supporters signaled their approval with spirit fingers twinkling in the air, Occupy-style, and signs reading “Let’s Give Emeryville and Workers a Raise” rippling back and forth across the room.
If boos had been permitted, it’s unclear they would have been forthcoming. Of the scores of speakers that night, only three issued any reservations about the proposal and not a single person spoke in outright opposition. Just minutes after public comment came to a close, the council approved a “first reading” of the ordinance unanimously, guaranteeing its passage into law. When the vote concluded, audience members began hugging and high-fiving. “You can clap now,” Mayor Atkin told them, and the room erupted in celebration.
The ordinance’s path to victory began in 2014. It first surfaced at a time when the Lift Up Oakland coalition—a network of local nonprofits, unions, elected officials and progressive businesses—was building momentum in the nearby city for a November 2014 ballot initiative, which would raise the city’s minimum wage to $12.25. After the measure passed overwhelmingly, Mayor Atkin quickly assembled a team of supporters to push for similar legislation in her own city.
Most of those involved in hatching the Emeryville ordinance had worked on the Oakland campaign, and some of them, including the mayor, had helped pass Measure C in 2005. This groundbreaking law compelled Emeryville’s four big hotels to increase their workers’ pay, implement job security rules and adhere to workload standards, which are crucial in an industry responsible for a high number of on-the-job injuries.
Despite an extremely expensive campaign waged by the No on Measure C camp, which called itself the “Committee to Keep Tax Dollars in Emeryville,” 54 percent of Emeryville voters endorsed the hotel regulations, which have subsequently served as models for cities like Long Beach and Los Angeles.
With the 2005 victory, Emeryville seemed to make a political pivot. Once known as a corporate haven with a city council largely dominated by business-friendly voices, the city has since become a distinctively progressive city at the national forefront of living-wage activism.