Last week, fast food workers in over 100 cities rallied in support of a $15 minimum wage. Voters in the city of SeaTac near Seattle approved a $15 minimum in November, and efforts are spreading to raise local minimum wages in Washington DC and other cities. President Obama has endorsed a $10 federal minimum (from the current $7.25), and California’s will go to $10 in 2016. Raising the pay of low-wage workers has become the driving force in the struggle to reduce inequality and make work pay.

But San Francisco is being left behind. The city was the national pioneer in raising its local minimum wage in 2003, and still has the highest of any city over 30,000 in population, $10.55 per hour and indexed to inflation (it will be $10.74 in January). Yet San Francisco’s higher housing and overall living costs requires a significantly higher local minimum. This may require a ballot initiative to overturn the 2003 measure setting the current rate, but such a proactive move for economic fairness is imperative. There is little doubt that San Francisco voters would raise the city’s minimum to at least $12 if not to $15 if given the chance on the November 2014 ballot.

As San Francisco seeks way to address rising rents and inequality, a surefire strategy has yet to move forward: raising the city’s minimum wage. San Francisco’s minimum needs to be appreciably higher than state or federal minimums to account for the much higher costs of living not only in San Francisco, but in Oakland, Berkeley and the nearby cities whose residents commute to work in San Francisco.

A Pro-Active Strategy

Having worked on San Francisco’s 2003 minimum wage campaign as well as on Florida’s 2004 state minimum campaign, I am hard pressed to think of a more effective proactive strategy for advancing economic justice and reducing income inequality. Minimum wage hikes also boost voting among low-income voters, sending a message that the political system is addressing their concerns.

Minimum wage backers typically do polling to decide what wage level to include in a ballot measure. And I would hope that the San Francisco Labor Council and/or individual unions or activist groups are already preparing such a poll for use in a November 2014 campaign.

It’s hard to believe now, but in 2003 San Francisco labor was reluctant to put a minimum wage hike on the ballot because unions thought it would lose. Had activist Barry Hermanson not funded the signature-gathering effort, and the former community organization ACORN not carried it out, the landmark raise in San Francisco’s minimum wage would not have happened (Matt Gonzalez had tried to get the Board of Supervisors to raise the minimum, but could not get the support without weakening amendments).

A ballot measure in 2014 raising San Francisco’s minimum wage would be overwhelmingly favored for victory. And even if a smaller raise to $12.50 per hour went to the ballot, its success would bring a pay increase of roughly $350.00 per month or about $4000.00 per year for a fulltime worker starting January 2015.

Activists can pass no legislation or ballot measure that will do more to address income inequality in San Francisco in the next year than raising the city’s minimum wage. Let’s hope a coalition soon forms to put such a measure on the ballot.

Randy Shaw discusses minimum wage campaigns in his new book, The Activist’s Handbook, Second Edition: Winning Social Change in the 21st Century