Minimum-Wage Hikes Have Unstoppable Momentum

May 12, 2015 -- Nikki Fortunato Bas

By Nikki Fortunato Bas, Oakland Tribune My Word © 2015 Bay Area News Group

POSTED: 05/11/2015 01:44:19 PM PDT

In the Bay Area, we are innovators. We are the home to high tech, slow food, and a wide range of social causes. And we are now reaching a tipping point on innovation on the minimum wage. The public overwhelmingly supports raising wages because we know that if workers such as Shonda Roberts are innovative enough to figure out how to survive on $1,000 a month, surely business is innovative enough to figure out how to pay a few extra bucks an hour.

As the Bay Area cost of living has skyrocketed, we've asked people to be more creative to stretch a dollar. The shared economy is nothing new to minimum wage workers. For years, they've had baby-sitting collectives to allow them to work second jobs; food collectives to afford to eat; and ride shares to get to work, the doctor and the grocery store.

Shonda lives in a one-room apartment with a shared bathroom. When her kids visit, they sleep on the floor on a mat with jackets as pillows. She spends only about $35 a week on food; reuses cooking oil for a month; and has had the same Ziplock bags for years. She will walk a mile for a sale on toilet paper or take a stack of napkins from her fast-food job.

But the proverbial pendulum of social change is swinging in the other direction. Two years ago, $15 an hour was unthinkable, and now it's unstoppable. Thousands of people are standing up for higher wages, creating upward pressure in our economy, forcing business to innovate.

San Francisco, Oakland and San Jose have taken leadership by raising wages. And now, Emeryville small business employers have come out alongside community and workers to push forward a measure to raise the minimum wage to $12.25 with a pathway to $15 by 2018.

Small-business owners are ready to do things like form collectives to share payroll, HR, and IT services so that they can leverage an economy of scale. They are experimenting on prices, special sales and going tipless. And they are shaving their expenses to ensure their employees -- who they consider part of their extended families -- can survive.

Small business is willing to step up, and now it's time for big business to innovate as well. Global corporations like Walmart, Home Depot, Ikea, The Gap and Target supply the majority of low-wage jobs and control the market with race-to-the-bottom pressure on wages.

Instead of drawing profits out of our local communities, they could pay workers more. When people earn more, they spend more, pumping millions into our local economy. That's good for the bottom line, and it generates tax revenue for education and public safety.

In cities that have already raised their minimum wage, the sky hasn't fallen. Small businesses report that their customers don't mind paying an extra 25 cents here and there so that workers can make $25,000 a year.

Small businesses are stepping up to the challenge of lifting up their employees, and like low-wage workers, they are innovating to be a part of progress. Now it's time for global corporations to do the same and use Bay Area ingenuity to shift how we think about the marketplace so that business and workers not only survive, but thrive.

Nikki Fortunato Bas is Executive Director of the Partnership for Working Families and a resident of Oakland. PWF is a network of 17 organizations across the country that has a two-year goal of lifting up 2 million low-wage workers.