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Bay Area Minimum-Wage Campaigns Echo a National Movement

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SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and fast-food workers occupy a North Oakland McDonalds earlier this month. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)
SEIU President Mary Kay Henry and fast-food workers occupy a North Oakland McDonald's earlier this month. (Andrew Stelzer/KQED)

A few days before Christmas last year, dozens of people marched in circles around a Jack in the Box restaurant on Telegraph Avenue in North Oakland.

“Give her her job back!” they chanted, protesting the firing of Ilda Amadour.

“I’m a good employee. I work hard for $8.75 an hour.” said Amadour. “Jack in the Box feels like they can walk all over us and we're not taking it no more.”

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Then another chant rang out, making it clear that Amadour and the rest of the crowd, which included other fast-food workers, weren’t just advocating for her.

“Fifteen dollars! A union! Fifteen dollars! A union!” they cried as they marched to a second Jack in the Box.

Those two basic demands -- $15 an hour and a union contract -- have become the battle cry for millions of fast-food workers across the country. With unions on a decades-long downslide, Service Employees International Union President Mary Kay Henry saw a chance to connect with disgruntled workers at companies like McDonald's and Jack in the Box and change the public conversation around stagnant wages.

“What union they become a part of or what membership they have is sort of secondary to the first job, which is to make sure they win $15 and a union,” said Henry. The union has spent a reported $10 million on the campaign, which has spread from New York to Chicago, Detroit and the Bay Area.

“If San Francisco and Oakland can raise their minimum wage and there can still be job growth and small business growth, it shows that what the right wing is saying is wrong. This is not a job killer. This is a job creator,” Henry added.

Over the last two years, the “Raise the Bay” regional effort has recruited and trained dozens of fast-food employees to tell their stories in order to change public perceptions of who they are and what their lives are like.

For instance: workers like KFC employee Shonda Roberts, with two daughters in college.

“I was probably working (at KFC) six months, and an organizer happened to come in and had a petition there to up the pay — minimum wage $15 — and I signed it [and] went to a meeting," Roberts recalls.

“And then they flew me out to Detroit maybe six months later for a conference. And when I saw 1,500 young adults, all fast-food workers just standing in solidarity, I was hooked. It was like a drug,” she added.

President Obama mentioned the minimum wage in his 2014 State of the Union address, calling on “every mayor, governor and state legislator in America" to take on the issue. UC Berkeley economist Ken Jacobs said Obama’s remarks were a coup for ongoing local efforts in Bay Area communities.

“It has really changed the debate.” said Jacobs.

San Jose was ahead of the wave of Bay Area minimum-wage campaigns, with voters approving a raise to $10 an hour (and future increases) in 2012. Earlier this year, both Richmond and Berkeley moved to raise minimum wages. And this fall, voters in San Francisco and Oakland will consider ballot initiatives that would raise wages.

Some local chambers of commerce and many business owners have argued against the hefty minimum-wage increases, saying that increased costs for employers will lead to layoffs and hurt workers, not help them.

Michael LeBlanc, founder and principal of downtown Oakland's Picán restaurant, voiced those very concerns when he appeared before the Oakland City Council in July to testify against a campaign to raise the city's minimum wage by more than 35 percent. That proposal, placed on Oakland's November ballot through a petition drive led by a community group called Lift Up Oakland, would hike minimum pay from $9 to $12.25 an hour, effective next March.

“If the minimum wage increases in the form that Lift Up Oakland has it, I will lose eight or nine people, and I don’t have a choice about that,” LeBlanc told the council as it considered an alternate proposal for a more gradual increase.

The City Council voted down the alternative, which would have raised wages to $12.25 next October and $13.50 in 2018. Councilman Noel Gallo, one of those who voted against the alternate plan, said the council’s previous lack of action helped fuel the Lift Up Oakland campaign for strong action on a wage hike.

“We all dropped the ball," he said. "The individual employees and unions took it upon their own to provide leadership and go do it."

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