San Jose State University in San Jose, California. (AP Photo/Paul Sakuma)
Given an assignment in a sociology class with Professor Scott Myers-Lipton to examine how organizing could make a difference in their community, a group of thirty San Jose State students put their studies into practice and launched a campaign that has gained the support of young labor activists, community groups and faith-based organizations—and now the city of San Jose could see a pay raise because of it.
The coalition is pushing to raise the city of San Jose’s minimum wage by 25 percent—from $8 per hour to $10 per hour—with annual inflation adjustments.
"What’s powerful about the campaign is that it is student-initiated," Myers-Lipton says. "They’re working-class students for the most part, and there’s an incredible diversity in the student body. I think it’s visionary to see this multi-ethnic group of students working together."
The movement has taken on a life of its own with the local labor council and community partners stepping up as the fight intensifies. Supporters of the minimum wage increase have attracted positive media attention and have stayed focused on winning a high-road campaign while preparing for heavy opposition from the Chamber of Commerce as their measure makes its way toward the November ballot.
The San Jose State students are moving this issue forward with the help of "Next Gen," a labor-inspired organization that motivates young people to take control of their future. "We want to help rebuild and reshape the economy to make it work for young people and working families," says Anna Schlotz, the 26-year-old president of Next Gen, Bay Area. "That’s what a local policy like raising the minimum wage does. It’s an incredibly exciting campaign that Next Gen is proud to be a part of."
The San Jose campaign is also part of a new wave of efforts to spread the benefits of existing "living wage" bills to a larger group of workers. Typically, when a locality passes a living wage ordinance, it requires that those doing business with the city pay workers a higher rate. But the San Jose measure that the young people are working to pass applies to all workers—constituting a minimum wage boost for the whole city. If passed, it would place San Jose alongside Washington, DC, San Francisco and Santa Fe, New Mexico, as the only cities with local ordinances requiring wages higher than state minimums for all employees.
From Classroom to Practice
As part of Myers-Lipton’s Sociology 164 course on Social Action, students studied President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s proposal for an Economic Bill of Rights. As student activist Elisha St. Laurent explains, "The economic bill of rights guarantees everyone a job, a living wage, a decent home, medical care, economic protection during sicknesses or old age or unemployment." The minimum wage campaign is a practical way of making some of these guarantees more attainable for San Jose residents. "We’re trying to link the economic bill of rights to inequality in the San Jose area," she says.
As the mother of a five-year-old boy and someone who is working to pay for college, St. Laurent has experienced the realities of the low-wage economy directly. "Especially as a single mother," she says, "you know I’m continually struggling. I’m always working minimum wage. Right now I make $9.25, so it would be a 75-cent increase for me. But an extra $100 or $200 in my check would make a difference. It’s making sure that I have gas in my car so that I can take my son to school, and then still being able to pay my bills."