Our Longreads Member Pick:
The Offline Wage Wars of Silicon Valley, by Nona Willis Aronowitz

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For this week's Member Pick, we're excited to share a story from Next City's Forefront magazine, by journalist Nona Willis Aronowitz. Aronowitz looks at the story behind the minimum wage increase in San Jose, which jumped to $10 per hour from $8 per hour after the city's residents voted for the increase last November—"the single largest minimum-wage jump in the nation’s history." Aronowitz explains:

"A few months ago, I started to notice that journalists were totally obsessed with Silicon Valley's income gap. In voyeuristic detail, they described oblivious 22-year-olds buying $5,000 bicycles and renting $3,000 studios and farming out the simplest tasks to worker bees with the click of an app. Meanwhile, the working class—the people on the other end of TaskRabbit and dry cleaning bills—were mostly painted in broad strokes as powerless casualties of this contemporary gold rush.

"When I heard that a few students at San Jose State, mostly working class women of color, had sparked a campaign to raise the minimum wage, I immediately realized that the $48 artisanal fried chicken of Silicon Valley had come home to roost. These kids were living in an exaggerated microcosm of what had pissed off Occupy Wall Street so much, and unlike that poor documentary filmmaker getting evicted in San Francisco, they weren't impotent bystanders. They were fighting. This piece doesn't tell a tale of a seamless victory; these activists were juggling kids, classes, campaigning, and their own minimum wage jobs, sometimes unsuccessfully. But their story is an important counterpoint to the implication that the widening of the wealth gap, happening everywhere, is simply inevitable."

For more from Next City, you can check out their site. This story is part of Next City's Forefront magazine, a weekly series of in-depth articles about urban affairs, which is available by subscription. For a limited time, Next City is offering Longreads members a 20 percent discount on a one-year subscription. Enter the offer code: LONGREADS (case sensitive) for your discount here.

The Offline Wage Wars of Silicon Valley

Nona Willis Aronowitz | Next City | August 12, 2013 | 21 minutes (5,131 words)
Illustration by Kjell Reigstad

It was the second day of the spring 2011 semester at San Jose State University, and Elisha St. Laurent was stressing. She had unwittingly enrolled in a seniors-only class—she was just a junior—and needed another class on her schedule, stat. Most professors prohibited an add if a student missed the first class, but St. Laurent was in luck: Professor Scott Myers-Lipton had room in his Social Action class, an elective wherein students are required to craft (and then implement) their own public policies beyond the bubble of the classroom.

St. Laurent was presented with two options: Join an initiative at a local elementary school or help raise San Jose's minimum wage. The latter instantly resonated with her. She was making $9 an hour as a cashier at a Santa Clara Micro Center, the latest in a string of retail jobs St. Laurent had held since she was 14. She wasn't working for beer money, either. She had her son Zayne, then four years old and whom she was raising along with her mother, to support. She'd never been a class warrior. She'd never gotten involved with politics before. But soon, she found herself at the forefront of the push for Measure D—the San Jose ballot initiative that would mandate the city's 70,000 minimum wage workers to get a 25 percent raise from $8 to $10 an hour, the single largest minimum-wage jump in the nation's history.

The students weren't piggybacking on the idea of a progressive mayor or union leader (although virtually every left-leaning organization in Silicon Valley would eventually support it). Measure D originated in October 2010, when Marisela Castro, the daughter of onetime farm workers and a then-sophomore, approached Myers-Lipton about wanting to raise the minimum wage. At the time, Castro was working at an afterschool program with middle schoolers. Each day she noticed that they were stealing graham crackers and chips and hoarding them in their pockets.

"Their parents were gone, they weren't too involved at all," Castro said. They're "working one or two jobs and getting paid really little." She figured if San Jose's minimum wage went up, these parents would be able to spend more time with their kids. If they were more available, then a whole host of issues she saw play out daily—anything from low academic performance to behavioral problems to hunger pangs—would be easier to tackle.

After doing a little research and finding out that San Francisco had implemented a wage hike in 2003, Castro decided to recruit her fellow students. She put up fliers and made the rounds to classrooms, giving out her email and phone number. But after a semester, she could only get one person to join her cause. That's when Myers-Lipton suggested she take his Social Action class. Castro signed up in the spring semester, and was at first only joined by Leila McCabe, Saul Gonzalez and one other. Gradually, over the course of a year and a half, the project hit a nerve with a revolving door of student organizers.

This legislative fight was hatched in a perfect storm. It was happening post-recession, in the wake of open global panic about the economy. It was happening during mind-boggling tuition hikes—SJSU has raised its tuition by 141 percent since California's last minimum wage increase in 2008. It was happening when gas prices often surpassed $4 a gallon. The campaign kicked off just as thousands of angry Americans, many of them young, descended on Wall Street and hundreds of satellite cities, including San Jose. This wasn't President Obama's generic call to raise the federal wage in the State of the Union address. This was a fight that belonged to the students. And the fight wasn't just altruistic, as the students' own paychecks hung in the balance.

The San Jose campaign came at the heels of minimum wage battles being fought across the country, from New York to New Mexico to the congressional floor. Democrats in the Senate had, by this time, introduced and repeatedly called for the passage of the Fair Minimum Wage Act, which would raise the federal minimum to $10.10. But at its heart, the minimum wage is an idea that's most resonant in cities like San Jose, where poverty and homelessness are all the more obvious next to Silicon Valley's extreme prosperity. The funneling of creative, educated young people and venture capital dollars to a city, which in turn gives birth to a service industry to support this class, is both the modern emblem of urban success and a recipe for a cavernous wealth gap.

San Jose has long been a tech mainstay that other start-up-friendly cities across the country, like Omaha and Atlanta, hope to emulate. But could it also be a model for young, urban activists fueled by the very inequality their city's wealth has created?

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