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For a Few Dollars More

2015 is the summer of $15: How about it, Sonoma County?

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The summer of 2015 is also the summer of $15. In cities and states around the country, underpaid workers have broken through political inertia and corporate pushback to help bring wages to a semblance of decency. In Los Angeles, city leaders passed a $15 an hour minimum wage that'll phase in over the next few years. San Francisco did the same, following on Seattle's living-wage ordinance, and in New York, a state wage board has taken the remarkable step of advocating that big-time fast-food restaurants pay a $15-an-hour wage.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has accepted that recommendation, even as Dunkin' Donuts warns of total catastrophe, a massive doughnut hole in the company's profit margin, layoffs and the whole fear-mongering shebang you'd expect.

A compliant business press, led by Forbes magazine, is now predictably rolling out articles that speak of the hidden dangers of the fight for $15: It's a job-killer! Closer to home, a bill to raise the state minimum wage to $13 an hour by 2017 has languished in the assembly after passing out of the senate. Gov. Jerry Brown opposes it. Under a previous bill, the state minimum wage will rise by a buck, to $10, on Jan. 1.

Meanwhile, Walmart, the behemoth of fine Chinese products, has slowly raised its wages to around that same California minimum in the face of relentless pressure from activists. Sen. Bernie Sanders is calling for a doubling-plus of the federal minimum wage, from $7.25 to $15 an hour.

Yet the buck stops here in Sonoma County for a large group of workers not covered under a county living-wage ordinance under consideration by the supervisors. The supervisors have been under a relentless wave of wage-hike agitation from the coalition North Bay Jobs for Justice and have steadfastly refused to raise the rate to all who would labor under the county's bosom.

County workers who aren't already earning a living wage (custodians and other blue-collar workers, mainly)—they're covered. Contractors with county business are also covered, but they don't have to raise the wages of county-contracted workers until their contracts are re-signed or amended. Living wage activists also point to a group of airport workers excluded from the ordinance, as well as concessionaires who, for example, work at the Sonoma County Fair. And then there's that big bloc of critical workers: thousands of in-home supportive service (IHSS) workers stuck at $11.65 an hour.

Marty Bennett, an organizer and spokesman with the organization North Bay Jobs for Justice, calls the proposed ordinance "the most ineffective, least comprehensive living-wage ordinance ever passed."

The supervisors pushed off a living-wage agenda item for another day on Aug. 11, but IHSS workers showed up in force anyway to protest in front of the County Administration Building.

They are not letting it go in this summer of $15.

In some measure, the wage fight in Sonoma County finds civic leaders caught between the forces of an unfolding and historic moment for workers across the country, and a county whose own public persona is progressive and eager to lead on issues like climate change, "sustainability" and other national concerns.

A county-commissioned study by the Oakland-based Blue Sky Consulting Group noted late in 2014 that, because of the outsized costs that get passed on to localities by the IHSS workers and then on to taxpayers, "most counties in California with living-wage policies exclude IHSS workers." So why should Sonoma County seize the IHSS initiative when nobody else in the state is doing so?

Marin County has done so, and raised its wage for those workers to $13.10 an hour, says Bennett. Ditto San Francisco, which passed a living-wage ordinance following on a local referendum—and included that city's IHSS workers.

The living-wage ordinance under consideration by the Sonoma supervisors also includes in its scope "franchisee" contractors that do big business with the county.

That includes, for example, the Ratto Group and Republic Services. The latter is one of the country's largest waste-management firms, and now runs the county-owned landfill and five garbage-transfer stations. The Ratto Group picks up much of the county's garbage and recyclables.

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