California Forum

Minimum wage battle stirs passion for victors

After Gov. Jerry Brown announces a landmark agreement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he hugs an emotional Burger King employee Holly Diaz, who described her hardship of trying to raise her 5-month-old son and stay at her job that she has held for the past nine years on minimum wages.
After Gov. Jerry Brown announces a landmark agreement to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, he hugs an emotional Burger King employee Holly Diaz, who described her hardship of trying to raise her 5-month-old son and stay at her job that she has held for the past nine years on minimum wages. rbyer@sacbee.com

It was the passion of the people bumping up against the pragmatism of politics, bushy eyebrows and all.

After Gov. Jerry Brown announced legislation to raise California’s minimum wage to $15, Burger King worker Holly Dias, “wrapped up in the moment,” she says, gave him an awkward hug as a “way of thanking him for everything.”

Signed quickly into law one week later and similarly matched in New York state, the pay increase is billed as the most significant achievement for workers in decades and a bullet in the leg, if not the heart, of income inequality.

We’ll see.

But there’s another victory in the legislation that’s more immediate and with equal long-term impacts. Organized labor, which bases its power on the ability to mobilize masses, now has hundreds of newly confident leaders such as Dias who just experienced the heady charms of victory and will never go back to being passive.

“These kinds of campaigns stir the imagination of what is possible,” says Fred Ross Jr., an organizer for local electrical workers whose father mentored Cesar Chavez. “Victories are precious. If you’re part of that you will never forget it, and it helps fuel you for the long haul.”

Dias, 38, a cashier and cook at a franchise in Arden Arcade, agitated for higher wages for three years but says speaking out doesn’t “come naturally.” She never envisioned herself as the kind of person who rubbed up against politicos and went on her first strike for a $50 payment from a union – enough to cover her impending phone bill.

But one day last year she ate seven side salads in an eight-hour period and craved Starbucks iced tea. She was pregnant, and that’s when she knew, “We believe we will win,” wasn’t enough, she said. Sitting in Planned Parenthood she thought, “We have to win.”

So she talked up the cause to co-workers, rallied, marched and even toughed out a Sacramento City Council meeting while having contractions with her now 5-month old son Raiden Roman, a chubby-legged tyke named after a Mortal Kombat character and a professional wrestler.

“They’ve laughed at us; they’ve ignored us,” she said of the treatment she’s gotten from politicians.

Sometimes she wanted to quit, she said. But what then?

Unlike many contemporary union leaders who have risen through the ranks of their organizations Dias and her kind have more in common with Chavez’s farmworkers of the 1960s, united by economic and social circumstance, dedicated as much to community as contracts and working not just for better pay but better possibilities.

They have revived the social justice aspect of unionism that has historically been the binder between the disparate factions of labor. At local levels they’ve created an intersectionality across groups that for a long time have found little commonality outside of elections.

Dias and “Fight for $15” are reminders that solidarity requires altruism and is more than unions busing in protesters for rallies. She’s genuine, and in California the final politicking that passed minimum wage wouldn’t have been possible without her kind.

A few weeks ago a seasoned labor representative crossed L Street to knock on the governor’s door with a deal. He opened it largely because of the two minimum-wage initiatives headed for the November ballot – one qualified and one gathering signatures. The Hobson’s choice he faced was make a law that he had input in or have one handed to him in a noisy election cycle when his own agenda, from water to criminal sentencing reform, needed both voters’ attention and his.

Those ballot initiatives evolved out of local fights waged by these nascent organizers. In cities that passed wage ordinances it was unrelenting, time-consuming campaigning by workers such as Dias – backed by the money and resources of savvy unions including SEIU and UFCW – that made it happen. Those laws gave the legislative grounding and positive polling that made the initiatives powerful weapons.

Dias is a self-described “little nobody worker.” “But then they asked for me to be there with the governor … it felt really good and really proud. It just made the whole battle worth it.”

Now, she said, “My future is to become a big-time organizer.”

Immediately, that likely means the elections.

“I hope to see and expect to see many of those people now knocking doors on behalf of issues, referendums, ballot measures and for that matter even candidates,” said Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation.

But Pulaski also said there’s “no doubt of it,” these converts will be around long after the last vote is counted. “They will recognize for the rest of their lives the value of standing together.”

Somewhere among them, maybe as close as Dias, is the next generation of Chavezes, Pulaskis and Rosses. Union or not they’ll keep brawling above their class for things that maybe aren’t even about them because they’ve learned they’re the ones strong enough to support even the most quixotic causes.

And sometimes when you fight you win.

Anita Chabria is a regular freelance contributor who lives in Sacramento. Contact her at anachabria@gmail.com.

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