On Monday, Gov. Jerry Brown plans to sign a historic bill to make California the first state to raise its minimum wage to $15 an hour. While the move from distant worker dream to undeniable reality happened quickly, there were many tough local fights along the way that made it possible.
At the end of 2012, striking fast-food and retail workers captured attention. The Service Employees International Union’s “Fight for $15” sparked a national movement. Calls for a $15 minimum wage took off in California. Coalitions of labor unions, workers, community groups, small businesses, progressive elected officials and faith leaders built on the momentum to win wage increases in more than a dozen cities, laying the groundwork for state action.
The effort started in San Jose, where voters raised the minimum wage to $10 in 2012. By 2014, Oakland passed a ballot measure to raise the minimum wage to $12.25, ensure paid sick leave and protect against wage theft and San Francisco voters passed the state’s first $15 minimum wage.
These successes created momentum for city councils to act in 2014 in San Diego and last year in Los Angeles and Sacramento. These victories reverberated in neighboring cities, creating regional wage standards in Silicon Valley, the Bay area and the Los Angeles area.
These cities showed that increasing the minimum wage could work in practice. When cities continued to thrive, it shattered conservative arguments that wage hikes would devastate the economy.
Perhaps more important than acting as a laboratory, city-level wins helped change what was politically possible. With each victory, expectations and momentum grew. They served as a powerful reminder that when we stand up together, we can change even the most entrenched views and give hope to those left behind by a rigged economy.
These powerful local coalitions worked with unions to push the Legislature to approve a $10 minimum wage and collected signatures to put a $15 wage on the November ballot. This created an environment where few candidates for elected office would oppose raising wages.
Significantly, the power these cities are building extends to New York, Seattle and beyond. California and New York are likely just the first of many states that will soon be pushed to act by progressive cities.
As we celebrate our victory in California and leverage it to build toward a national minimum wage increase, we must remember that cities paved the way for success. The same lessons can be applied to other worker and community issues, if only we build these movements from the ground up.
Nikki Fortunato Bas is executive director of Partnership for Working Families and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Roxana Tynan is executive director of the Los Angeles Alliance for a New Economy and can be contacted at email@example.com.