Just yesterday, Silicon Valley entrepreneur Ron Unz announced that he was dropping his drive to get the Higher Wages for California Workers Act on the November ballot. The measure would have boosted the state minimum wage to $12/hour—$2 per hour beyond what the California legislature recently voted to adopt and $1.90 more than the federal proposal that President Obama has put his weight behind.
It’s a strong idea, which would go at least some way to alleviating poverty in a state with some of the nation’s highest costs of living. Unz says that his meetings with trade union leaders, as well as a slew of wealthy individuals, both conservative and liberal, had generated fine words of support. But, he says, when push came to shove, they didn’t pony up the cash to pay signature gatherers to fan out around the Golden State in the early spring. And with ballot measures having to qualify at least 131 days before the next election, Unz felt that his effort was fast running out of time.
While it is possible that his announcement is just a ploy, designed to get people to pledge last-minute dollars for his effort, it is also possible that Unz—long described in the media as extremely wealthy—is less rich than he has been made out to be, and that his campaign really is on its last legs.
A one-time California GOP gubernatorial hopeful, and erstwhile publisher of The American Conservative, Unz recently spoke to The Nation about his minimum wage initiative and why he broke ranks with his conservative comrades.
Sasha Abramsky: Before we talk about why you support a minimum wage, let’s talk about why, after months of optimism, you now don’t think you’re going to be able to get this on the ballot come November. Aren’t you wealthy enough to self-fund this?
Ron Unz: I obviously did not make much of an effort to debunk the media statements early on [about his levels of personal wealth]. But in my meetings with trade unions and wealthy donors, I always explained to them that I wasn’t as wealthy as people thought. I was trying to raise money to get it on the ballot. Unfortunately, it hasn’t come together.
Do you think the unions held back on supporting this because they are confident that Democrats in California’s state legislature will soon pass a higher statewide minimum than the $10 hourly wage those same legislators only recently enacted? In other words, now that public sentiment has swung behind higher wages for the working poor, perhaps legislators believe they have cover to introduce living wages legislatively rather than having to hope that a well-worded, and also popular, initiative somehow makes its way onto the ballot?
It should be very easy to do in California right now, even without the Initiative. The Democrats have a supermajority in both houses of the state legislature. I would hope that the climate has changed enough that they could now do it. I would hope the reason they are reluctant to support my initiative is they think they will get it through the state legislature—which is fine with me.
Whether or not your campaign to place a raise-the-minimum-wage initiative on the November ballot is successful, at the very least you’ve impacted the terms of the debate. Why did you, a self-proclaimed conservative libertarian, end up championing what would be the nation’s highest state-level minimum wage?