SAN JOSE -- San Jose's overwhelming approval of Measure D, making it the most populous city to adopt a higher minimum wage than state or federal requirements, has given a boost to labor advocates seeking to raise the pay floor for workers around the country.
Students and labor leaders who campaigned to raise minimum wages in San Jose are hearing from activists from Los Angeles to Eureka interested in similar measures for those cities. And they say the measure's approval by 59 percent of San Jose voters adds pressure on state and federal lawmakers for broader minimum-wage hikes.
"For us it was really exciting because it was a reaffirmation of the popularity of this issue, even in hard economic times," said Jen Kern, minimum wage campaign coordinator for the National Employment Law Project in Washington, D.C., which contributed $38,000 toward the Measure D campaign.
Many states forbid their cities from adopting their own minimum wages and only a few others nationwide have done so: Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico; Washington, D.C.; and San Francisco, Kern said. Voters in Albuquerque this week raised a minimum wage the city had established in 2006. And Long Beach, Calif., voters just voted to raise the minimum wage for hotel workers.
"People can't dismiss it and say, 'Oh, it's just Santa Fe,' " Kern said. "It's harder to dismiss when it's San Jose. I think we will hear from other cities, and even the state of California will be emboldened."
The federal hourly minimum wage is $7.25, although a bill introduced this year in Congress would raise it to $9.80 by 2014 with inflation adjustments. President Obama has expressed support for a minimum-wage increase. California's hourly minimum wage is $8 and the highest state rate is $9.04 in Washington, which will increase to $9.19 in January.
When it takes effect in March, the San Jose measure will establish a $10 hourly minimum wage citywide with automatic inflation adjustments. The San Francisco hourly minimum will be $10.55 next year.
"We're very excited," said Leila McCabe, 31, a sociology major and temporary employee at labor think tank Working Partnerships USA who is finishing her final semester and was among the students who hatched the idea. "To see it all the way through to the end and have it pass was very empowering and exciting and restored my faith in the system and in people power."
Unions and labor advocates raised more than $315,000 toward Measure D's passage but were outspent by restaurant, hotel and other business groups who raised more than $422,000 toward its defeat.
Labor and business groups debated furiously over the measure's potential impacts on jobs and the local economy. Labor leaders argued the measure would give workers more money to spend, boosting local business. Businesses countered that it would only force them to cut jobs and hours.
After the measure passed this week, Mezcal Restaurant owner Adolfo Gomez told his dozen minimum-wage earning servers, bartenders and busers that the result for them would be a mixed bag.
On the upside, Gomez said, they will still have their jobs at the downtown eatery. The downside, he said, is he'll have to cut their hours, likely reducing how much they'll make in tips, their main source of income.
"They were disappointed," Gomez said. "They said, 'Why don't you raise prices?' But I'm not about to raise prices in the economy we're in right now, I cannot. We were hoping we'd break even this year, and start paying some of the debts we have."
Motif restaurant owner Teresa Nguyen said she'll have to review her budget once the measure takes effect, but has told her 15 servers that as many as half of them could lose their jobs.
Business leaders conceded they faced an uphill fight to convince voters the city-mandated wage hike would do more harm than good.
"We simply did not have the time or money to educate the voters about the negative impacts that this measure has contained within it and the effects that it will have on small- and medium-sized businesses," said Matt Mahood, president and chief executive officer of the San Jose Silicon Valley Chamber of Commerce. "The voters voted with their hearts feeling that most people deserve to make more money. Hard to argue with that."
Labor leaders wave off such tales of woe from the business world.
"I think voters know how expensive it is to live here and believe that if you work hard and play by the rules, you should earn a fair wage," said Cindy Chavez, executive officer of the South Bay AFL-CIO Labor Council.
Contact John Woolfolk at 408-975-9346. Follow him on Twitter at Twitter.com/johnwoolfolk1.