Is Berkeley's latest minimum-wage plan a sincere attempt to boost worker pay—or a "cynical ploy"?
That's what some debated after last week's Berkeley City Council meeting, when the council voted to place an initiative on the November ballot to increase its minimum wage to $15 by 2019. Several dissenting councilmembers said the proposal is actually a plan to torpedo an existing minimum wage initiative that arguably would do more for workers by confusing voters and possibly splitting the vote — which could result in no pay increase whatsoever.
"This is such cynical politics," Councilmember Jesse Arreguin said of the maneuver, which was proposed by Councilmember Laurie Capitelli and supported by Mayor Tom Bates and a majority on the council. "It's a way for Capitelli and the chamber of commerce to kill the minimum wage initiative that's already going to be on the ballot," he said.
The other minimum wage initiative Arreguin was referring to is sponsored by labor unions and dozens of activists, who have gathered thousands of signatures over the past half year to place it on the 2016 general-election ballot. It would increase Berkeley's minimum wage to $15 by 2017, and then increase this amount each year by 3 percent, plus inflation, until it reaches the city's defined living wage. The current living wage, as defined by the city, is $16.37 an hour, and it rises each year to keep up with inflation.
The activist-sponsored measure would also provide Berkeley workers with sick days, a provision not included in Capitelli's initiative.
Councilmember Kriss Worthington, who also voted against Capitelli's motion, said last week's decision is the latest turn in a drawn-out battle over the city's minimum wage in which Capitelli and Bates have delayed votes and switched positions so as to minimize chances that Berkeley workers will receive a pay boost.
"The mayor has not been a very progressive mayor," said Worthington. "And Capitelli's motion is what the [Berkeley] Chamber of Commerce has been proposing — to add a confusing additional ballot measure."
Bates told the Express that he voted in favor of Capitelli's motion to place the second, competing initiative on the ballot not to sow confusion or delay anything, but instead to give voters a choice. "The thinking is if you have one [initiative], you might as well have two and give voters a choice," said Bates. "One [of the initiatives] is more rapid and one is slower."
Bates said he is concerned that many small businesses in Berkeley simply won't be able to keep up with the more ambitious minimum-wage increase and that some might go out of business, lay off employees, or cut back workers' hours.
When asked if he would campaign for the ballot initiative proposed by Capitelli, he said "probably."
"I'm personally in favor of a more moderate increase," said Bates, who has said he won't run for re-election.
Capitelli, who is vying to replace Bates as mayor, didn't respond to a request for an interview, but the minimum wage issue will likely play a big role in the city's November election.
Capitelli, a real estate agent with strong ties to Berkeley's business community, is one of the more conservative members of the council. As Berkeley has debated the minimum wage, he has expressed concerns that raising pay for low-wage workers could hurt Berkeley businesses.
Worthington and Arreguin, two of the more progressive members of the council, have both repeatedly said that by delaying votes on various proposed minimum wage increases since 2014, Capitelli and Bates have harmed the city's working poor. Arreguin is challenging Capitelli in the mayor's race.
David Fielder, a Berkeley resident and one of the leading activists pushing for a minimum wage increase, said that Capitelli has been an obstacle to raising the minimum wage for more than two years. Fielder said Capitelli's maneuver last week wasn't an honest effort to provide voters with a choice, but instead another roadblock.
"Back in May of 2014, a group of activists was trying to negotiate a minimum wage increase with the council," Fielder recalled. He said a deal was struck whereby the city council would pass an ordinance, avoiding a costly ballot initiative campaign, but that Capitelli walked away from the pact. "We went to a special meeting of the council after a deal had been hammered out ... and at that meeting Capitelli got up and said, 'I renege on the deal that I made last night.'"
Archived video of the council meeting from May 6, 2014, does show Capitelli abandoning the deal. "I made a pledge last Thursday to bring it to a vote," said Capitelli at the meeting, "but I am now in a position where I have to renege, because I think we need more time." Boos from workers and cheers from business owners filled the room.
"He broke his promise," said Fielder. "After Capitelli reneged, we got together and said 'never again.' We'll have a line in the sand, an initiative."
Last year, Fielder and dozens of activists, plus several labor unions, circumvented the council and began collecting signatures to place $15 by 2017 on the ballot. Calling themselves Berkeley for Working Families, the coalition announced on April 18 that they had collected 4,500 voter signatures, approximately 160 percent of what's necessary to qualify the initiative.
Meanwhile, Capitelli was crafting his own measure: $15 by 2020 for small employers, and $15 an hour by 2018 for companies with 55 or more employees. Although less than the wage hike proposed by the Berkeley for Working Families coalition, many supporters of that initiative also backed Capitelli's ordinance, calling it a step in the right direction, as it wouldn't interfere with the ballot initiative.
But at council's February 9 meeting, when the ordinance was scheduled for a hearing and first vote, Mayor Tom Bates made a motion to delay voting until April 26. Members of the public and several councilmembers responded angrily to the mayor's move.
"When there comes a time to consider addressing crises in the city that are legion and manifest all around us in housing problems, the living wage problem, we get delay after delay after delay," said Max Anderson, another progressive member of the council, during the meeting. "That's a calculated thing that's going on... Big money is driving this," complained Anderson.
Video of the February council meeting shows Bates chuckling after Anderson made the "big money" allegation. Anderson responded: "May be funny to you, but it's not funny to that worker."
In between the February 9 and April 26 council meetings, the Berkeley for Working Families coalition turned in signatures to qualify their higher minimum wage increase for the November ballot. And at last week's council meeting, Capitelli changed his ordinance into an initiative and a majority of the council voted to place it on the ballot, despite protests from Arreguin, Worthington, Anderson and many members of the public.
Fielder said all of Capitelli and Bates' proposals have fallen far short of the pay that workers actually need to survive in the East Bay. "What they're doing is unconscionable," he said. "It doesn't come close." Fielder said that because the cost of living is so much higher in Berkeley than it is in other regions, the city's current minimum wage of $11 an hour actually provides less support to workers than the minimum wage in Omaha, Nebraska. In fact, Fielder computed a comparison of Berkeley and Omaha and found that because of differences in housing prices and other expenses, $9 an hour in Omaha is actually equivalent to about $14.40 in Berkeley. A check of several cost of living calculators confirms Fielder's findings.
"For some members of the council to crow that we hope to eventually pay $15 in 2020, for them to say that this is so high, that Berkeley is among the top cities leading the way on raising the minimum wage, it is a lie," said Fielder. "It's misleading at best."
Mayor Bates doesn't dispute Fielder's observation. "The whole thing is unfair," Bates said. "You can't live on $15 an hour in Berkeley. There's no way a single person can do that. But on the other hand... there's only so much [businesses] can raise their prices and still stay in business. You can only charge so much for an omelet."