An activist for many years, I am always impressed by the May 1 marches organized by the farm workers union, inspired by the long-gone activist César Chávez. The sea of people with their signs from very many different sectors, people who work in different industries, all marching for the same cause: dignity and justice.
The protests, held in places all around the nation, have been falling on deaf ears. And certainly Cesar Chávez is rolling over in his grave, disgusted by the hypocrisy and double standard of today’s leaders who mention his name.
Right here in Sonoma Valley this May we have watched the same pitched battle between those asking for justice – a fair wage; and those who assert they will go out of business if they have to pay their workers a fair salary. This is the ongoing struggle of exploitation that minorities and people of color still suffer in this capitalist economy.
The struggle for a $15/hour minimum wage has played out at City Council in recent weeks. We could view this as the beginning of a progressive movement locally, thanks to the leadership of Mayor Amy Harrington, and Vice-Mayor Logan Harvey, and all who were tired of seeing the City of Sonoma turn its back on those who do the hard work. Representatives of several groups and individual activists spoke in support of a living wage for working people, who aren’t earning enough to live in this community. From the start there were many in the audience who applauded the measure, urging the Council to pass the ordinance for a fair wage for all workers in the city, including all restaurant and hospitality workers.
Discussions about a fair minimum wage began, as the mayor herself noted, almost two years ago. At that time experts, studies, restaurant and business owners, and activists were heard, among others. Proponents brought the question to the council again recently. I should acknowledge that I came a little late to the public comment, but when I arrived I was struck by what was going on in the May 6 meeting. Something wasn’t right. Something was missing. Someone wasn’t there. People were speaking about me, for me, yet there I sat.
Some people spoke for me, some spoke against me; some said they couldn’t pay me a fair salary because it would bankrupt them and besides, they were already giving me a job. Yes, they were talking about the dishwashers, the maids, the people who clean the bathrooms. They were talking about, and speaking for, Latinos who live in the Boyes Springs area.
It was this frustration and anger that led me to my Facebook page. I asked my contacts if they would share how they felt about not receiving a fair wage. In less than 24 hours I had received over 100 responses. Most of them asked me not to share their names, for fear of reprisal.
And so, at the May 20 meeting some of their stories were read. Stories of maids, gardeners, dishwashers, students, and a tired old man who couldn’t afford to retire and rest. These testimonials are heart-breaking, and they reveal the passion and strength of hard-working people who barely manage to live a half-life on a miserable salary.
At the June 3 meeting, the City Council approved 3-2 the $15/hour minimum wage resolution. Hopefully we are on the threshold of a new future in which, after years of living as second-class citizens, we can say we are an integral part of this community.
And even though this is a great step forward, there is still much to do. There are so many men and women who are struggling hugely because of years of trying to subsist on low-paying jobs. Poverty salaries hurt the workers and their families, and they hurt the community. That’s why we need to remain united and continue the struggle for higher wages for all, in the Valley as well. Restaurant workers, fast-food workers, janitors, maids, field workers – the fight for $15 is for everyone.