Many of the folks keeping those retail cash registers ringing this holiday weekend work for minimum wage. Right now in California that’s $8 an hour. Earlier this year Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation that will boost it to $10 in 2016.
But now, support to raise it even further is coming from an unlikely source — a Republican — high tech entrepreneur Ron Unz, who’s best known for a 1998 ballot measure banning bilingual education in public schools.
Unz is pushing a proposition for next November’s ballot to raise the state’s minimum wage to $12 an hour by 2016.
KQED’s Scott Shafer spoke with Unz about the measure.
Scott Shafer: Let me begin by just asking you about this ballot measure and the impact it would have. If it passed, it would bump up the minimum wage in California from $10 an hour in 2015 and then to $12 an hour in 2016. What difference would that make to workers who are working at minimum wage today?
Ron Unz: I think it would make an enormous difference. Now most of the estimates I have are on the national level, but based on some of the differences in California, I think by the time it was fully implemented, it would put close to $15 billion dollars a year extra into the pockets of California’s low-wage workers. That’s an awful lot of money.
Shafer: And give us a sense of what that would mean on an annual basis to one worker. Any idea?
Unz: Probably $4,000 to $5,000 per average worker getting a hike.
Shafer: The minimum wage workers in California, many of them work in retail, they work for employers like Wal-Mart, and that is why their wages are so low. In fact, they have to use programs like Medi-Cal and food stamps to make ends meet. Is your argument, to a certain extent, based on employers like that?
Unz: There are a lot of different arguments for it, but that’s certainly one of them. What we have is a system in which employers have privatized the benefits of their workers; they get all the labor, while they’ve socialized many of the costs, forcing the taxpayers to cover the living costs of their own workers, which is ridiculous.
Shafer: As you know…liberals, Democrats, organized labor, have for many years called for raising the minimum wage. The basis for their arguments tends to be fairness, or what they sometimes call “economic justice.” Do you see your argument for this ballot measure as being fundamentally different?
Unz: I don’t think it’s different, I think it’s parallel. There are many different ways of looking at the same issue. The bottom line is ordinary workers in California are paid too little money. Because they are paid so little, they can’t even shop at Wal-Mart. They can’t even generate the sort of consumer spending that our economy needs. What we’re talking about is basically putting an extra $15 billion a year into the pocketbooks of those households in California that spend every dollar they earn. It would be one of the largest economic stimulus packages in California history, funded entirely by the private sector.
Shafer: Most Republicans and business groups affiliated with them, like the Chamber of Commerce, will say that this is a job killer. What’s your response to that argument?
Unz: Sometimes that argument is correct. If you’re talking about a large minimum wage increase, in a small geographic region, like a small city, you suddenly put the businesses in that city at a tremendous disadvantage compared to businesses right across the line in another city.
But when you’re talking about a very large geographic unit, like the state of California, or better yet, the whole United States, it’s very unlikely that businesses would relocate all the way to another state simply because their costs went up a little bit.
For example, Wal-Mart, under a $12 an hour minimum wage, would only go up 1 percent. They would only have to raise their prices 1 percent and I just can’t see businesses moving over the state line because of a 1 percent cost increase. They would just raise their prices 1 percent to cover the cost.
Shafer: You are best known for authoring Prop 227 in 1998, which essentially ended bilingual education in California public schools. Do you see these two things in any way being related?
Unz: The advantage of the initiative process is that you put it out to the voters and if the voters support a higher minimum wage, which I think they will, they’ll pass it and it’ll become the law. Just as was the case with our English initiative 15 years ago.
Shafer: I guess I’m wondering about a different connection, which is that the bilingual education measure affected immigrants. Some would say that this ballot measure could also benefit many immigrants in that many of the lowest-wage workers in California are, in fact, from other countries.
Unz: Absolutely, that’s certainly true and at least in my perspective, I think making sure that immigrant children are taught English in the public schools was also tremendously beneficial, though obviously, other people disagreed.
In this case, the figures I’ve seen are that like 55 percent of all Hispanic wage workers in the United States make less that $12 an hour, and (I) suspect a comparable figure is true in California. So we’re probably talking more than half of all the Latino workers in California would get a wage increase under this measure, which would be a tremendous boost to struggling working people.
Shafer: Ron Unz, thanks for talking to us.
Unz: Great to be here.
Republican Ron Unz wrote Proposition 227, the 1998 ballot measure banning bilingual education in California public schools. He’s now the main proponent of a statewide measure to raise California’s minimum wage. He hopes to qualify it for next year’s November ballot.