How San Francisco Organizers Rewrote the Rules to Save Minimum Wage
by David Zlutnick
On Jan. 1, 2012, San Francisco’s minimum wage became the first in the nation to pass the $10 mark. The lowest-wage workers will now earn $10.24 an hour, up from the previous rate of $9.92 last year. The city’s minimum wage is tied to and adjusted for inflation, or specifically the Consumer Price Index for the San Francisco Bay Area. For most of the country the minimum wage is not at all tied to inflation, and therefore has lost value in real terms.
But San Francisco’s is different because of a law enacted as a result of Proposition L, a city ballot measure fought for and won by a coalition of organized labor and a diverse network of community-based progressive organizations back in 2003. The alliance was particularly rooted in communities of color and pushed by low-wage workers not typically represented by traditional unions.
After the passage of Proposition L, the new minimum wage started at $8.50 in 2004, and has risen incrementally since to its present value. However, this is still far below a living wage, especially in San Francisco, a city with one of the highest costs of living in the country. Additionally, a range of issues such as a housing shortage, little access to healthcare, and wage theft among others make it increasingly difficult for the city’s low-wage workers.
In response to these challenges, the coalition of community organizations that united to bring about the minimum wage increase has continued to work together over the past several years to tackle the range of the issues affecting their memberships. Uniting under the banner of the Progressive Workers Alliance, groups from across the city representing historically-marginalized communities very consciously have chose to organize using a multiracial model, uniting a broad base of affected workers.
The Progressive Workers Alliance itself is a lesson the individual organizations have learned from the minimum wage fight of 2003. In coalition the groups have realized their impact is larger, and their power has increased. They are using this to better advocate for their memberships’ economic interests, and affect change on a grander scale.
To help tell this story, Colorlines.com spoke with Jaron Browne and Donaji Lona from People Organized to Win Employment Rights (POWER); Shaw San Liu from the Chinese Progressive Association; Renee Saucedo from SF Day Laborer Program and Women’s Collective; and Ken Jacobs from the UC Berkeley Labor Center.