Oakland Chamber at Odds with Voters

Victory for Libby Schaaf and the approval of minimum wage hike highlight the Oakland Chamber’s poor track record in 2014 election.


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photo by lance yamamoto

Supporters of the minimum-wage hike gathered at City Hall a few days before the measure took effect.


Supporters of Oakland’s successful referendum raising the city’s minimum wage to $12.25 an hour rallied in front of City Hall just days before the new law’s implementation on March 2. Eighty-two percent of Oakland voters supported the measure, but there was little gloating on this windy winter morning from the local activists, workers, and even small-business owners who addressed the local television and radio press corps. The public had spoken, and more than 48,000 workers were about to receive an instant raise of $3.25 an hour.

Across the street at the office of the Oakland Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, the small press conference would have been inaudible through the din of downtown traffic. And that could serve as metaphor for the business community’s seemingly deaf ear to the overwhelming willingness of Oakland voters to help out low-income workers with a big—and immediate—minimum wage increase.

The chamber opposed Measure FF, the referendum through which voters bestowed this wage increase, favoring instead a more gradual increase over the next three years as a means of increasing the pay for workers at the bottom end of the salary range.

“The chamber supports raising the local minimum wage and differs on approach,” the group said in one September press release. “It has worked with a broad coalition of local small nonprofits on an alternative that would have fewer negative consequences for small businesses and nonprofit organizations.”

Representatives of the chamber and business interests met with union leaders and activists in early 2014. “Essentially they were trying to ask for the usual cutouts and carve-outs and exemptions,” griped Gary Jimenez, president of Lift Up Oakland, the community group that led the Measure FF campaign. But by that time, Lift Up Oakland had almost enough signatures to qualify the measure for the November ballot. The group eventually submitted more than 33,000 such names.

Former City Council President Kernighan went on to propose an alternative chamber-backed ordinance that would have gradually increased the minimum wage over the next three years. But it failed to gain support of the city council. Only Kernighan and Councilmembers Lynette Gibson McElhaney and Larry Reid voted for the alternative proposal.

The chamber’s loss regarding the minimum wage boost was not its only misstep in last year’s general election. Its political action committee, OakPAC, supported mayoral candidate Bryan Parker, who fared quite poorly at the polls. It also backed two losing city council members—Dana King in District 2 and Jill Broadhurst in District 4. And it failed to acknowledge the realities of Oakland’s ranked-choice voting system by curiously endorsing just one candidate in every race.

Sole support for Parker seemed a particularly odd choice, since Libby Schaaf, another business-friendly candidate in the race, was racking up impressive fundraising totals and beginning her impressive march to the mayor’s office. Parker, a former commissioner for the Port of Oakland, meanwhile, registered less than 8 percent of the first-round vote in November.

“We wanted to send a clear signal through our endorsements that that there are sharp distinctions among the candidates,” said Barbara Leslie, president and CEO of the chamber and administrator of OakPAC, in a Sept. 23 news release on its election endorsements. “Our sole endorsees in each of these races, led by Port Commissioner Bryan Parker, have a proven track record supporting a better business climate in Oakland and demonstrated a nuanced understanding of what is needed to grow our economy. These candidates also bring innovative ideas to promote a safer city, improve quality of life, and support a thriving economy that grows business and jobs.”

The chamber board did adopt positions supporting Measure Z, Measure BB, and Measure CC, all of which passed; while opposing Measure FF. But the lack of support for the latter, given that measure’s clear popularity during an election cycle that the chamber touted as a “pivotal moment for Oakland,” highlights the chamber’s disconnect with the election outcome.

“They are very out of touch,” complained city worker Marcus Brown, a volunteer for the minimum wage measure who has worked more than three years as a temporary part-time worker at city parks around the Claremont Hotel. “They’re not getting out here and talking to the public and the workers of the city. If they had, they would have known the atrocities that we are dealing with. There are so much negative things that are happening in this city right now, and it’s affecting the livelihood of all the workers. … If they were in touch with the community, we would have a better chance with a lot of issues.”

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