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Home » Elections » How the $15 Minimum Wage Was Won in Berkeley – the Details & Back Story

How the $15 Minimum Wage Was Won in Berkeley – the Details & Back Story

Faced with a citizen ballot measure on November’s ballot, on August 31, the Berkeley City Council unanimously voted for to increase the minimum wage in Berkeley to $15 an hour on October 1, 2018.

Progressive Councilmember and mayoral candidate Jesse Arreguin has been a leader in the effort to raise the minimum wage. In 2013, he was one of the sponsors of the Council item referring an increased minimum wage to the Labor Commission.

Jesse’s opponent for mayor, Laurie Capitelli, delayed action to achieve the $15 wage. In May 2014, he reneged on promises made to community members who have worked tirelessly for a higher minimum wage.  In September, 2015 he again voted against a proposal to raise the minimum wage to $15 in 2018, while Jesse Arreguin and Council progressives voted for it. This year, he supported an alternative ballot measure that would have delayed the increase to $15 and added loopholes and exceptions. Finally, when it was too late to take the competing measures off the ballot, he and his council allies decided to join progressives on the council and action was finally taken to bring the minimum wage to $15.  Only with extensive citizen pressure and lobbying did he (and his Council allies) do so.

Berkeley is now one of four Bay Area cities that will achieve the $15 minimum wage for all employees, regardless of the size of the business, in 2018.

City When $15 takes effect
Mountain View January 1, 2018
San Francisco and Emeryville July 1, 2018
Berkeley October 1, 2018
El Cerrito January 1, 2019

Berkeley’s minimum wage will be $12.53 effective October 1 this year, rise to $13.75 on in October, 2017 and then to $15 in October, 2018. The ordinance mandates sick leave, with a cap of 48 hours for employers of fewer than 25 workers and 72 hours from larger employers, starting right away.

As a result of this compromise, the Berkeley Progressive Alliance has withdrawn its support for Measure CC, the citizen measure.


San Francisco Leads the Way

In 2003, San Francisco voters approved Proposition L, establishing an indexed minimum wage beginning at $8.50 an hour.  By 2014, San Francisco’s minimum wage was $10.74 an hour, the highest in the United States. In 2014, faced with a ballot initiative backed by unions and activists to raise the minimum wage to $15 by 2017, a compromise initiative was placed on the ballot to raise it to $15 in 2018, with future inflation increases. The measure passed with 77% of the vote.


Berkeley: First Steps 

Councilmember Worthington first referred a Berkeley minimum wage to the Labor Commission in 2004. The Commission created a Minimum Wage and Living Wage subcommittee, but no proposal emerged and the Council took no further action.

Efforts to enact a minimum wage were revived in 2013 by advocates, including Nicky Gonzalez Yuen, Wendy Bloom and Ellen Widess. In April, 2013 Mayor Bates and progressive council members Arreguin and Worthington asked city staff and the Labor Commission to draft an ordinance similar to San Francisco’s.[1]


The Labor Commission proposal

In April, 2014, the Labor Commission proposed, effective June, 2014, a $10.74/hour minimum wage for most employers and $13.34/hour for large employers,[2]  essentially adopting San Francisco’s minimum wage . Annual increases based on the Consumer Price Index[3]  would continue until the minimum wage equaled the living wage. Beginning June, 2015, a health care requirement would have been in place.

The proposal would have established the highest minimum wage in the country.

At a May 1, 2014 Council meeting, Councilmember Capitelli proposed slowing the Labor Commission proposal; only in 2020, would the minimum wage equal Berkeley’s living wage, estimated at a bit higher than $15.00 an hour.


Capitelli Reneges

At a May 6 Council meeting, Capitelli outraged minimum wage supporters by reneging on his proposal. The Council instead passed the first reading of an ordinance increasing the minimum wage to $10 in January, 2015 and $10.75 in January, 2016. A Council task force would be formed to consider what should happen after that. Effectively, had this been adopted, Berkeley would have been two years behind San Francisco and Oakland.

Capitelli’s broken promise and the Council’s vote on May 6 provoked a firestorm of protest from citizens. Berkeley Citizens for a Fair Minimum Wage announced their intention to place a $15 minimum wage on the ballot. Former city councilmembers Carla Woodworth and Ying Lee and activists Margot Smith, Marty Schiffenbauer and David Fielder signed a letter to the City Clerk indicating their support.


Efforts by Councilmembers Anderson, Arreguin, Moore and Worthington to increase the minimum wage further after 2016 were rejected by Councilmember Capitelli and a majority of his colleagues. Instead, the Council decided to raise the minimum wage to $12.53 an hour by October 2016 with a one-year exemption for non-profits and a permanent exemption for youth in job training.


Stalling and Delays Continue – Activists Keep Pushing

In June 2014, the Council discussed but dropped the idea of having a Minimum Wage Task Force. In September 2014, the Council directed the Labor Commission to come back with additional minimum wage and sick leave recommendations.

After a year spent drafting a new ordinance with business, labor, community and Council member input, on September 15, 2015, the Labor Commission presented a new proposal to the Council. It included bringing the minimum wage to a living wage; cost of living increases; paid sick leave; service charge rules, and clarification/ removal of exemptions.

Progressive Councilmembers Worthington and Anderson made a series of motions, all of which failed, to increase the minimum wage. One would have raised the minimum wage to $15 on October 1, 2018, the same amount that the Council ultimately agreed to. It was supported by Councilmembers Anderson, Arreguin, Moore and Worthington, but opposed by Mayor Bates, Councilmembers Capitelli, Droste, Maio and Wengraf.

The Council majority then voted to delay any action until a special meeting on November 10, 2015.  There, instead of discussing the Commission’s proposal, Capitelli presented a totally new, much weaker proposal after public comment was closed. This proposal would have delayed the $15 minimum wage for all employees in Berkeley until 2020.  The Labor Commission proposal was abandoned and Capitelli’s proposal later just faded away as well.

During that year activists were not sitting on their hands.  They had seen how delays had effectively led to missing the deadline for taking an initiative to the voters.

A community-labor coalition, the core of Berkeley for Working Families, had early-on formed to work in parallel to craft a citizen’s initiative.  Encouraged by the powerful national fight for $15 and the support from local low wage workers, Berkeley activists persisted in crafting a ballot measure.  Wendy Bloom, Mike Donaldson, David Fielder, Steve Gilbert, Matt Lewis, Ned Pearlstein, Judy Shattuck and others, with funding and legal support from SEIU 1021, drafted the measure and tried to negotiate with each of the City Council majority members.   In November 2015, when the Council refused even to discuss the Commission’s proposal, they were ready.  The coalition filed an initiative and gathered 4,400 signatures to qualify what is now officially named measure CC.

Dueling Ballot Initiatives

Measure CC would have raised the minimum wage to $15 in 2017 and, through modest annual increases, gradually caught up with the city’s official Living Wage ($16.81 in today’s dollars). It would also improve sick leave requirements, enhance enforcement, and phase out any exemptions – so all workers would be protected

The Council majority placed its own initiative on the ballot, delaying the increase to $15 to October 2019, well behind San Francisco, Emeryville, Mountain View and El Cerrito. Their measure, Measure BB, would also allow employers who provide health benefits to pay only $13.50 an hour, mandate less sick leave than what other cities require, and allow private employers to pay a sub-minimum “training” wage to those under 22. And BB contained a poison pill: it required a two thirds super majority of the Council to enact further increases or make other improvements.

Despite this negative response, Berkeley for Working Families exhausted all efforts to secure a better deal for working families.  After weeks of frustrating negotiations, they thought an acceptable solution was at hand. Capitelli agreed to call a special meeting of the City Council on August 11 but at the very last minute again reneged, issued a statement through the Downtown Business Association and did not show up to his own meeting.

That would have been the end of it but other elected officials, notably EBMUD director Andy Katz and former Assembly member Nancy Skinner, made a final effort resulting in an agreement not very different from the one rejected several weeks earlier, including a $15 minimum wage in 2018.

After Council passed the ordinance, Berkeley for Working Families issued the following statements. The proponents of both initiatives have agreed to call for a “No” vote on both as it is too late to remove them from the ballot:

As the coalition that drafted Measure CC and gathered 4,400 signatures to get it on the Ballot, we are pleased with the agreement passed by Council today … We would not have gotten to this point without the powerful national fight by fast food and other low wage workers for $15 an hour … [and] the years of effort from community activists, Labor and of course Council members Jesse Arreguin, Max Anderson and Kriss Worthington, who have been consistent champions for working families in Berkeley… the ordinance passed today … will help thousands of low wage workers immediately [and] be one of the most progressive minimum wage laws in the nation …  This November we will be asking voters to support this legislation by voting No on Measures BB and CC. [4]

Prepared by Rob Wrenn & Kate Harrison

Berkeley Progressive Alliance  –  PO Box 2961, Berkeley, CA 94702  –

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More on the Minimum Wage

For research related to impacts of raising the minimum wage in San Francisco and Oakland, check out:

 Impact of Minimum Wage on Three Cities

San Francisco Proposed City Minimum Wage Law – A Prospective Impact Study

The Impact of Oakland’s Proposed Minimum Wage Law- A Prospective Study


[2] Larger businesses employing 50 or more employees or franchises would pay the city’s living wage.

[3] With increases of 55 cents an hour for small business on top of the CPI-based inflation adjustments.

[4] The language opposing BB and CC is signed by the Labor Council, the Chamber of Commerce, Berkeley for Working Families, and mayoral candidates Jesse Arreguin and Laurie Capitelli. See:





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