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.
To qualify for the November ballot, the campaign needed to turn in nearly 20,000 signatures. In a five-week period, with help from the Labor Council, it collected 36,000. This spring, dozens of students gathered on campus at the statues of John Carlos and Tommie Smith, San Jose State alums who had raised their fists when accepting track and field medals at the 1968 Olympics. The students took off their shoes—Carlos and Smith had done the same to protest poverty—and marched barefoot to City Hall to hand over the signatures.
At the time, the Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce had “no position” on the proposal. But the strength of the coalition soon came into focus, with a number of churches and prominent nonprofits lending support, including the local affiliates of the United Way and Catholic Charities. Alarmed, the Chamber formed a group that raised more than $400,000 to defeat the measure. Opponents were soon warning that bumping up the minimum wage would kill jobs, and funded a report that—surprise!—found just that. Chamber CEO Matt Mahood even took to the radio to argue that it wasn’t the government’s place to “mandate” a minimum wage for the private sector. Students challenged Mahood to spend a week living on the minimum wage. (He declined.)
“It actually motivated us, to be honest,” says Perez about the opposition, which included Mayor Chuck Reed and the editorial board of the San Jose Mercury News. “If they’re not responding, we’re not doing our job right.”
Down the home stretch, the Labor Council provided many of the foot soldiers to push the message home, knocking on 80,000 doors and making more than 200,000 phone calls. Also important was the simplicity of the message. “Don’t get into long arguments about statistics,” a trainer told precinct walkers the Sunday before election week. “Keep it simple: if you work hard you deserve a fair wage, and eight dollars isn’t enough.” There are detailed studies showing that increases in the minimum wage don’t cause job loss, but the campaign wouldn’t get bogged down in a complicated fight over data. The strategy worked beautifully: despite being outspent, the coalition crushed the opposition with its message of economic fairness. On November 6, the movement that began with three students brainstorming in a classroom notched its victory. Nearly 59 percent of San Jose voters backed Measure D, which increases the minimum wage from $8 to $10 an hour (and, just as important, it will rise with the consumer price index). San Jose thus became the fifth city in the country—and the largest—to raise its minimum wage, boosting the earnings of tens of thousands of workers by $4,000 a year.
“San Jose State is in the shadow of UC Berkeley when it comes to student activism,” says Professor Myers-Lipton. “But we’ve got this history as a working-class university that most people don’t know about.” Sixty years ago, in fact, an organizer named Fred Ross spoke to another sociology class on campus about his efforts to organize Latinos in Los Angeles. Several Latino students, excited about what they heard, asked Ross to stay and help them organize in East San Jose. During the campaign, one of the students introduced Ross to a quiet young man named Cesar Chavez, who would take his first organizing steps alongside the students. A decade later, Chavez would form what became the United Farm Workers.
“We have statues and murals on campus that remind us that we’re a school with so much social justice history,” says Perez, who recently graduated and is directing an after-school program. “But it seemed like that history was fading away. This got us worked up again.”
Also in this week’s issue, the editors write  that the historic Walmart strike wave is an indictment not just of the retail giant’s business model but of our broken labor laws.