July 12-18, 2006

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Sally Lieber

Fourth time's a charm: Mountain View-based state Assemblywoman Sally Lieber has had her minimum-wage-hike legislation shot down three times by Gov. Schwarzenegger. Neither she nor her Silicon Valley labor allies are giving up.

Wage War

Silicon Valley is at the center of the push for a higher minimum wage statewide

By Sercan Ersoy

WITH Congress smack in the middle of a debate over whether to raise the federal minimum wage for the first time in more than half a decade, it's hard to believe that a local push to increase California's would be moving along virtually unnoticed.

But given the turnout at the June 21 press conference held by the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN), that's clearly the case. Compared to the hordes of media that have flocked to San Jose in the wake of the Gonzales scandal, the scene at the downtown State Building underwhelmed, with a lone cameraman from Telemundo providing the event's only television coverage.

Had the local audience gotten a chance to hear, they very well might have connected with the message: you can't make it in California on $6.75 an hour.

Some of those present are living that reality: Christian, a recent immigrant from Mexico who works for a gardening company, described how he lives crammed into a two bedroom apartment with four other people.

And there were those who see the problem from a different perspective. Domingo Valderrama, a retired factory worker, spent 40 years working for IMC (now called Allied Defense) in a union job building military gear for the government. He now spends quite a bit of his time working with ACORN because, as he sees it, young and especially minority workers in California just don't have the same opportunities to support themselves working that people used to.

"I had cost of living increases and unions," he told Metro. Valderrama said he's seen firsthand the loss of spending power among blue-collar workers in this area over the last several decades.

He's not alone. Advocates of increasing the minimum wage say it's a no-brainer because pay raises over the last few decades haven't kept pace with the increase in living expenses, especially in housing-cost hot spots like Silicon Valley. Opponents, from Gov. Schwarzenegger on down, say businesses, especially small businesses, will be squeezed by a minimum-wage hike.

United Food and Craft Workers 428 president Ron Lind has heard that argument a lot; but he says it's not only low-wage workers who would benefit.

"Most of the time when you raise the floor you end up raising the ceiling," says Lind.

Ironically, considering how the battle has flown under the radar here, Silicon Valley is actually the center of the statewide wage-hike effort. Sally Lieber, state Assemblywoman from Mountain View, has repeatedly attempted to get a bill passed in Sacramento that would not only raise the minimum wage, but also add a provision guaranteeing an automatic annual increase based on the rate of inflation. At this point, Schwarzenegger has become just about her only obstacle, since he's spent the last three years vetoing Lieber's bill every time it passed through both houses of the state's Legislature and landed on his desk.

According to Schwarzenegger, it's not an increase in the minimum wage that he's opposed to, but rather Lieber's plan to automatically tie future increases to inflation. He made that objection the central theme of the bill's most recent veto message, saying, "I do not support automatic increases to the wage that relieve elected officials of their duty to consider all of the impacts each increase to the wage will have on workers and businesses."

But Lieber says she isn't discouraged by the governor's hardened opposition to the bill; she frames the issue as somewhat of a moral crusade. "It's really clear that families that are making minimum wage in California aren't surviving on it," she said.

And she's ever the optimist, saying she plans to introduce her bill again this year hoping that Schwarzenegger might sign it in an attempt to curry favor with low-income voters before November.

"It's no longer young people [earning minimum wage], it's predominantly heads of households," said Lieber. "Woman, people of color and people who don't speak English."

This Ain't Living

It's not even that this bill would mean a solution to the plight of California's lowest-paid workers—more like a slight mitigation. It proposes raising the minimum wage by $1 an hour, to $7.75, over its first two years and then tying the low end of the pay scale to inflation in the years after that. Lieber herself suggests that a living wage in California would look something more like $19 an hour, making for a salary of just over $39,000 a year, instead of the $16,000 people would make under her law and the $14,000 minimum wage workers earn now.

But given the contention between lobbyists on both sides of the issue, Lieber's bill may be the best chance for workers to get any sort of increase at all.

"Having a living wage would probably help the business community, but they've been pretty diametrically opposed to even an increase in the minimum wage," she said.

Both the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Employers Coalition oppose increasing the minimum wage. According to a written statement from Julianne Broyles, the California Chamber's director of employee relations and small business, their main concern is not only the added costs to businesses a $7.75 minimum wage would create, but also that there is no structure set up to automatically increase the minimum wage in the way Lieber's bill calls for.

Teamsters local 287 president Bob Blanchet says even California workers who will get a boost from the bill—especially nonunion labor whose interests he stresses are far less protected—haven't realized how big this debate has become. Considering the cloud that has hovered over labor's image locally in the Norcal scandal, perhaps it's not surprising that he sees this fight as a chance to remind people of organized labor's power to create positive change.

"My personal goal, before I die, is to see as many people in a union as possible," Blanchet said. "I think everybody on both sides of the aisle is for the increase [in the minimum wage], but what we're really pushing fore is the index [tying it to inflation]. It's gonna help labor in general. Union, nonunion, blue collar ... and we support labor."

No one seems to doubt that an increase will once again pass through the state Legislature and Senate for the fourth time in four years. But even in a election year, when politicians are looking for extra feelgood cred, there's no guarantee that Santa Clara County will be seeing a higher minimum wage anytime soon. Blanchet says all unions in the county are united on the issue and have little intention of letting it fade away. "I think this is the moral thing people should be working at," he said. "We'll work with any group that's for the workers. Everybody's helping to find a better life for people."

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