By Peter Jon Shuler/KQED News
In November, San Jose residents will vote on whether or not to become one of the few cities in the nation to raise its minimum wage above the state level. If approved, Measure D would raise the city’s minimum wage from the state floor of $8.00 an hour to $10.00. San Francisco has a similar ordinance on the books, currently mandating hourly pay of at least $10.24.
The roots of the initiative go back to San Jose State University students, who were struggling to make ends meet. Elisha St. Laurent is a behavioral science major and the single mom of a 5-year-old boy. She expects to graduate next June.
“I work at an electronics store and we make minimum wage there. So it’s definitely not an easy thing being a part-time employee and then a full-time student,” she says.
But many businesses have lined up against the measure, and opponents say they’re ready to spend more than a million dollars to defeat it.
That campaign has brought together some surprising allies. John Hogan is CEO of TeenForce, a non-profit group that helps foster-youth and other minors acquire work experience. So you might think he’d be in favor of raising their pay.
“Yeah, it’s probably ironic that I’m running a youth jobs program and I might be against this — which I am,” he says.
Hogan calls Measure D the wrong solution to a real problem. Although he thinks the minimum wage should be higher, he doesn’t believe it should be a a city-by-city decision. And he says it will create more obstacles for the kids his organization helps. “These more disadvantaged youth are the ones that are tending to start at the minimum wage and we’re going to have a harder time finding jobs for them,” he says.
At the Good Karma Vegan Cafe, owner Ryan Summers says hearing about the measure inspired him to raise wages ahead of the November vote. But he understands why it has some employers worried.
“If you’d asked me two years ago if I would have been able to afford a pay raise for my employees, I would have said no way. And [the hard part is] small businesses just barely scrape by sometimes.” Summers says he increased salaries because he felt it was the right thing to do. “If you’re in a position to do something more for your employees and the community, I feel like you should.”
A poll of likely voters taken before the petition drive, conducted by the students, showed overwhelming support for raising the minimum wage. But retired San Jose State political science professor Terry Christensen says that was before the opposition had organized.
“All things being equal, people would be inclined to vote in favor of this, but all things will not be equal,” Christensen says. “There will be a strong opposition campaign that will be communicating, and I think they’ll have a credible message. So it’s going to be a real test of the campaign skills and abilities — and really reaching out to voters and persuading them.”
One of the contrasts, says Christensen, is that the Yes side will be largely a grass-roots, volunteer campaign, while the No campaign will be conducted primarily through the media.