Waitress Glenda Alvarenga picks up lunch plates at a cafe in California. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson
In the spring of 2011, students in a sociology class at San Jose State University got together to brainstorm ways to make the world a better place. The course they were taking, Social Action, focused on theory and history while also encouraging students to “apply social change to the local community.” For Marisela Castro, a junior, the promise of action was precisely what she was looking for, and she already knew the issue she’d champion. She was on a mission to raise the minimum wage.
Like many students at San Jose State, Castro came from a household where low wages weren’t an abstract injustice. Her parents had labored in California’s fields, and Castro was putting in long hours at an after-school program to help pay for college. At work she kept seeing kids swipe extra snacks because food was running low at home. “Their parents were working nonstop but only making the minimum wage,” she tells me.
Castro knew that San Francisco had raised its minimum wage in 2003 and saw no reason San Jose couldn’t do the same. She pitched the idea, and two other students joined her group, mapping out a plan.
Professor Scott Myers-Lipton, who teaches the Social Action course, estimates that 80 percent of his students work at least thirty hours a week. “I’ve been struggling with paying rent and bills for years now,” says Leila McCabe, a student who joined Castro’s group and eventually became an organizer with the Campus Alliance for Economic Justice. “Something’s wrong when you work hard but can’t make a real living.” This is a common complaint in San Jose, home to Adobe, Cisco Systems and eBay, and recently named the sixth-most-expensive city in the country, with rents increasing at a faster pace than in any other metropolitan area.
Although the students were dead serious, their efforts flew under the radar at the beginning. “As college students, we were able to find our way around a really confusing system,” McCabe tells me. “We weren’t looked at as being a powerful group. We went to all of these meetings, met with City Council members, but many people didn’t take us seriously. That was in our favor.”
As more students got involved, Myers-Lipton discussed the project with Cindy Chavez, leader of the South Bay Labor Council, which represents more than ninety unions. Chavez had no plans to run a minimum wage campaign. Come election time, organized labor would have its hands full trying to defeat Proposition 32, a statewide anti-union measure. She applauded the energy of the students but suggested they first raise money to do some polling. Was a minimum wage hike winnable?
So the students raised $6,000, hired a polling agency and made thousands of calls over a four-day period last fall. The results were encouraging, with about 70 percent in favor. “It wasn’t just low-income people,” says Albert Perez, one of the student leaders who helped make calls. “After the numbers were crunched we saw that we had wide support. We took those results and never looked back.”
The Labor Council grew more excited. “I went to my board and said that there was this opportunity to partner with a diverse group of young people who are trying to raise the minimum wage,” explains Chavez. She said they needed $20,000 to start. Unions pledged that amount in three minutes. By the end of the meeting, they’d committed another $100,000.