Student Activism as the Tip of the Spear: Raising the Minimum Wage in San Jose

The Nation, April 17, 2012

By Amy B. Dean

Given an assignment in a sociology class with Professor Scott Myers-Lipton to examine how organizing could make a difference in their community, a group of thirty San Jose State students put their studies into practice and launched a campaign that has gained the support of young labor activists, community groups and faith-based organizations–and now the city of San Jose could see a pay raise because of it.

The coalition is pushing to raise the city of San Jose's minimum wage by 25 percent–from $8 per hour to $10 per hour–with annual inflation adjustments.

"What’s powerful about the campaign is that it is student-initiated," Myers-Lipton says. "They're working-class students for the most part, and there's an incredible diversity in the student body. I think it's visionary to see this multi-ethnic group of students working together."

The movement has taken on a life of its own with the local labor council and community partners stepping up as the fight intensifies. Supporters of the minimum wage increase have attracted positive media attention and have stayed focused on winning a high-road campaign while preparing for heavy opposition from the Chamber of Commerce as their measure makes its way toward the November ballot.

The San Jose State students are moving this issue forward with the help of "Next Gen," a labor-inspired organization that motivates young people to take control of their future. "We want to help rebuild and reshape the economy to make it work for young people and working families," says Anna Schlotz, the 26-year-old president of Next Gen, Bay Area. "That’s what a local policy like raising the minimum wage does. It’s an incredibly exciting campaign that Next Gen is proud to be a part of."

The San Jose campaign is also part of a new wave of efforts to spread the benefits of existing "living wage" bills to a larger group of workers. Typically, when a locality passes a living wage ordinance, it requires that those doing business with the city pay workers a higher rate. But the San Jose measure that the young people are working to pass applies to all workers–constituting a minimum wage boost for the whole city. If passed, it would place San Jose alongside Washington, DC, San Francisco and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as the only cities with local ordinances requiring wages higher than state minimums for all employees.

From Classroom to Practice

As part of Myers-Lipton's Sociology 164 course on Social Action, students studied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt's proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights. As student activist Elisha St. Laurent explains, "The economic bill of rights guarantees everyone a job, a living wage, a decent home, medical care, economic protection during sicknesses or old age or unemployment." The minimum wage campaign is a practical way of making some of these guarantees more attainable for San Jose residents. "We’re trying to link the economic bill of rights to inequality in the San Jose area," she says.

As the mother of a five-year-old boy and someone who is working to pay for college, St. Laurent has experienced the realities of the low-wage economy directly. "Especially as a single mother," she says, "you know I’m continually struggling. I’m always working minimum wage. Right now I make $9.25, so it would be a 75-cent increase for me. But an extra $100 or $200 in my check would make a difference. It's making sure that I have gas in my car so that I can take my son to school, and then still being able to pay my bills."

"Young workers are really struggling in the recession," adds Schlotz. "Almost a third of young people are unemployed or underemployed and dealing with rising tuition, healthcare and costs of living. Especially in the Silicon Valley, you can work full-time and live in poverty. We threw ourselves into gathering signatures because we know raising the minimum wage could dramatically improve the lives of many low-wage and young workers."

The Mercury News recently reported, "Annual full-time undergraduate tuition and fees at San Jose State have climbed from $3,992 in 2008 to $6,840 this year." During this time, the minimum wage has not risen. The campaign website also notes that, according to US News and World Report, "San Jose is in the Top 10 US Cities where rents are spiking."

Rallying Allies

As the students moved forward with the idea, they found significant partners such as Working Partnerships USA, a think tank for public policy that affects working class families, the NAACP and the local faith-based group Sacred Heart Community Service.

Myers-Lipton explains, "Early on, there was a discussion that occurs in any campaign asking, 'Is this winnable? Is it worth putting in all the effort.' At that point [Sacred Heart Executive Director] Poncho [Guevara] said, 'You know, win or lose, we need to put forward a vision of what we stand for. We need to be putting our vision forward rather than always being on the defensive. So even if we lose, we’re going to win in the long run.'"

"It was a decisive moment for us," says Myers-Lipton. "Because you can only do so many things in the community, and you have to decide what are you going to spend your time on. When Poncho said that, there was kind of a gathering around his vision of, even if we 'lose' with this campaign, we’re still going to win. And there's a chance that we're not going to lose."

To show that the campaign was serious, the nascent coalition raised $6,000 and commissioned a professional polling firm to gauge community support for the measure. The poll showed that public support for a $10 minimum wage was very high–high enough to quell any doubts that the campaign could win.

Following the poll, the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council, seeing the distinct connection between the minimum wage campaign and its efforts to improve the lives of working families, got on board as well. "These young people had a great idea and we thought there was enough staying power for us to get engaged," said Cindy Chavez, Executive Officer of the Labor Council. Community-labor groups have provided training and resources as the campaign has moved forward.

Myers-Lipton explains, "The South Bay Labor Council has been decisive. They're not taking over from the students, but they're saying, 'We’re here. We’re in this with you side-by-side.'"

Sign for Justice

In order to get the measure onto the November ballot, the campaign, which is calling itself Raise the Wage San Jose, needed to get over 19,000 signatures by the beginning of May. They'vealready passed that mark. On March 28, students, members of Next Gen and other community organizations marched to San Jose City Hall to submit more than 35,000 signatures to the city clerk.

While unionized workers generally won't benefit directly from a minimum wage increase, Chavez says that labor council members still see this effort as critical for the city. "They see that this economy is bullying two-thirds of the people who live in it. They are not going to take it from the bully anymore. Living wage and minimum wage drives are just one way to tell the bully to back off: 'You’re not getting our lunch money today, and we are not going to let some people become impoverished in this country while others become so wealthy.'"

Chavez cites labor's engagement with students as an exciting development, describing the intersection of broad-based "horizontal" outreach and the "vertical" structures of established groups: "On the horizontal side you have youth and hope... On the vertical front though, there’s a level of expertise that [labor] institutions bring with them, along with resources that can’t be easily garnered by a horizontal group. It's exciting. In a way, the students are the tip of the spear of the new activism."

Boosting the Economy from the Bottom Up

With the signatures in, the campaign is working to make sure San Jose's City Council does not delay in putting it on the November ballot. "We are putting a lot of pressure on," says Chavez. "We turned in the signatures a full month earlier than we had to in order to make sure that we don’t get cheated out of an opportunity to go to the ballot in the fall."

Resistance to bringing the measure to voters would come as a result of business opposition. Myers-Lipton explains, "In any campaign there’s going to be a response from our opponents. The question is, how strong will the opponents come in against it and chip away at the lead that we have?"

With cities such as San Francisco passing higher minimum wages, corporate lobbyists created a front group called Employment Policies Institute, which promotes the message that raising the minimum wage is bad for business. Currently the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce is not taking a position on the minimum wage measure, but a spokesperson told the San Jose Mercury News March 29 that raising the minimum wage "could have unintended consequences."

In response, the Raise the Wage campaign site notes research from the Journal of Industrial Relations, the Institute for Research on Labor and Employment and other sources showing that business's foreboding warnings are unfounded. "Study after study after study has shown that minimum wage increases have not led to job loss, even during the latest recession," the campaign states.

St. Laurent cites the economic benefit of the wage measure. The research regarding San Francisco, she says, "actually shows that when they raised the minimum wage to $10.25, it boosted businesses. If people have money, they're able to give back to the economy. If you don’t have money, then you’re not going to go spend."

Nor is St. Laurent daunted by opponents' attacks. "As a group, we just continue to press on," she says. "We don’t allow negativism to come against us. Our motivation comes from other people. We want to be able to live in an adequate environment–paying for our bills and paying for things that we need for our children. That's why we're coming together as a team."

Chavez believes the example of the student-labor-interfaith coalition in San Jose can be contagious. "This fall we’ll be asking the voters of the tenth largest city in the country to give people a raise," she says. "My hope is that it will happen in other cities–that this will continue to catch fire and people will try to do the same thing across the country."

 

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