Steve Gilbert (holding the mic) announces at a press conference on April 18 that the Berkeley for Working Families coalition has collected enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 by Oct. 2017. Photo: SEIU 1021
Steve Gilbert (holding the mic) announces at a press conference on April 18 that the Berkeley for Working Families coalition has collected enough signatures to put a measure on the November ballot that calls for raising the minimum wage to $15 by Oct. 2017. Photo: SEIU 1021

A coalition of unions, politicians and community activists, fed up with what they perceive to be the slow pace of change coming from the City Council, appears to have collected enough signatures to place a measure on the November ballot raising the minimum wage to $15.

The group, which calls itself “Berkeley for Working Families,” turned in around 4,400 signatures to the City Clerk’s office on Monday, well above the 2,638 required.

If adopted by voters, the measure would raise Berkeley’s minimum wage to $15 by Oct. 2017. Then the wage would be raised each year by 3% + inflation until it hits $16.37, which is considered Berkeley’s official “livable” wage. The measure would also require employers to provide sick leave – up to nine days a year for large employers, and six days a year for companies with fewer than 10 employees.

“People are working and working and working but they can’t keep their heads above water because the cost of living is higher than in the rest of the state,” said Steve Gilbert, a retired mechanic with SEIU Local 1021.

The ballot measure is a direct challenge to the actions of the City Council, which has been slowly increasing the city’s minimum wage, but not at the rate labor activists want. In May 2014, the council voted to raise Berkeley’s minimum wage to $10 by Oct. 2014, $11 by Oct. 2015, and $12.53 by Oct. 2016. Then, in November, the council agreed “in concept” to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018 for larger businesses employing more than 55 full-time workers. Smaller businesses will have until 2020 to pay $15 an hour. The council will vote to finalize that timetable on April 26. The council rejected a request from the Labor Commission to raise Berkeley’s minimum wage to $19 by 2020.

In the meantime, other cities have voted to raise their minimum wages at a faster rate than Berkeley. Emeryville requires small employers pay workers $12.25 an hour; large employers must pay $14.44 an hour. In July, those wages will go up to $13 for small businesses and $14.82 for large businesses. By July 2018, all workers in Emeryville will earn $15 an hour with those in large businesses earning around $15.60.

Oakland voters passed Measure FF in Nov. 2014. It increased that city’s minimum wage from $9 to $12.25 in March 2105 and up to $12.55 by Jan. 2016.

San Francisco’s minimum wage will go to $13 an hour in July and $15 in July 2018.

The state of California recently voted to increase the minimum wage from its current level of $10 to $15 by 2022. The University of California has pledged to pay its employees who work at least 20 hours a week $15 by Oct. 2017.

Polly Armstrong, CEO of the Berkeley Chamber of Commerce, said she and other business owners support increasing the minimum wage to $15. The question, however, is about timing, she said. If the wage goes up too quickly, it will adversely impact small businesses that are already having trouble absorbing higher rents, higher food costs and other rising prices.

“My big worry is that people aren’t thinking through the impacts of speeding it up and adding all these new things (expenses),” said Armstrong. “How is it going to impact our wonderful small businesses? Berkeley is not like Oakland or San Francisco. We have a disproportionate number of small entrepreneurs who do magical things – but everyone has to make a living. I am afraid Berkeley won’t be a city of small, fabulous quirky businesses but will be all Chipotles, Paneras and PF Changs.”

Gilbert said there is no evidence that an increase in the minimum wage is what is putting small companies out of business.

City councilmembers Kriss Worthington (center left) and Jesse Arreguín (center right) were part of the coalition that worked to get a minimum wage increase on the ballot. Photo: SEIU Local 1021

City Councilman Kriss Worthington said the ballot measure was in response to the frustration many labor activists felt by the City Council’s timeline. The council majority rejected his amendment to make larger businesses pay $15 sooner.

“If the City Council had speeded up when the large businesses had to start paying $15, there wouldn’t have been such anger,” said Worthington, who helped in the ballot drive. “Labor activists would have been happier if Berkeley had at least done what Emeryville is doing, or kept up with UC or San Francisco. I think there wouldn’t have been such passion to go out and get the signatures.”

Mayor Tom Bates said Tuesday that he thinks the ballot measure moves too fast. He said he is considering trying to put a dueling measure on the November ballot that would increase the minimum wage to $15, but later than Oct. 2017.

04.22.16: This article was updated to give a more precise number of the signatures turned into the City Clerk’s office.

City Council votes to phase in minimum wage increases (11.12.15)
Merchants: New minimum wage proposal would ‘decimate’ businesses (11.09.15)
Op-ed: Labor Commission should think carefully about $19 minimum wage (10.07.15)
Op-ed: Berkeley Labor Commission’s $19 nightmare (09.18.15)
Berkeley Council puts off minimum wage vote to Nov. 10 (09.16.15)
Berkeley Council to consider $19 minimum wage (09.14.15)
Op-ed: As an East Bay fast-food worker, I say we need $15 minimum wage and a union (06.02.15)
East Bay restaurants adapt to new minimum wage (05.19.15)
Robert Reich makes the case for $15 minimum wage (04.17.15)
‘Fight for 15’ protesters march in Berkeley, Oakland (04.15.15)
‘Fight for 15’ rallies planned for East Bay on April 15 (04.14.15)
Berkeley’s minimum wage is $10 starting today, Oct. 1 (10.01.14)
Berkeley sets new minimum wage; up to $12.53 by 2016 (06.27.14)
Op-ed: Minimum wage plan is raising bar too far, too fast (06.10.14)
Op-eds: 2 views on Berkeley’s minimum wage hike plan (06.09.14)
Berkeley officials hold off on minimum wage task force (06.04.14)
Berkeley minimum wage plan passed, new initiatives loom (05.21.14)

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Frances Dinkelspiel, Berkeleyside and CItyside co-founder, is a journalist and author. Her first book, Towers of Gold: How One Jewish Immigrant Named Isaias Hellman...